Mel and the Maccabees

The Hanukkah story could be the script for Mel Gibson's next biblical epic. Will it cause the religious tensions 'Passion' did?

Anyone who took offense at Mel Gibson's

"The Passion of the Christ"

, with its depiction of Jewish leaders condemning Jesus, should get ready soon to be offended all over again. Gibson, it is reported, has his heart set on doing a movie version of the story commemorated by Hanukkah. His text will be the novel "My Glorious Brothers" by Howard Fast. Ironically, this book is a sentimental favorite with the older-generation Jewish audience that also tends to be the main financial supporter of Gibson's primary antagonist, the Anti-Defamation League, which led the drive to condemn "The Passion" as anti-Semitic. The Fast novel tells the story of Jewish heroes, circa 167 B.C.E., who defeat Greek oppressors of the Jewish people, retake the Jerusalem Temple, and relight the great menorah.

So what's so offensive? If this sounds, on the contrary, like a mollifying gesture to ADL national director Abraham Foxman, you might want to look a little more closely at what Hanukkah is actually about.

Many Jews grew up thinking of Hanukkah (which in 2004 falls on December 8-15) as an innocuous children's festival. Actually the Maccabean revolt was deadly serious business, and it recalls one of the great tensions in our own modern American society: the conflict was between what today one might call religious fundamentalists and the secular elite.

Here's what happened. Jewish Palestine had fallen into the clutches of the Greek kingdom of the Seleucids, with their tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, headquartered in Syria. While the Greeks were not anti-Jewish per se, they had little patience with the perceived particularism and parochialism of Judaism. (I say "perceived" because Judaism's vision, when properly understood, is in fact highly universal.) The Greek vision was one of mutual theological acceptance. They were relativists, in the sense we know today, believing that not only the God of Israel but

all

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the gods should be worshipped at the Jerusalem Temple--and believing that dissenters from their "tolerance" deserved to be suppressed.

Religiously committed Jews, however, were less troubled by the Greek Syrians themselves than by Jewish "Hellenists" in Palestine, and in the holy city itself, who had thrown in their lot with the Greeks. This was a way of social climbing. By embracing Greek culture, with its aggressive relativism, ambitious Jewish elites hoped to improve their own social standing in Greek eyes. They embraced Greek customs that religious Jews found disturbing - exercising naked in the gymnasium, with an emphasis on discus-throwing in the nude, or (far worse) effacing their circumcisions through a surgical operation involving cutting a flap of skin around the penis and letting it hang by weights. In his standard history of the period, "Alexander to Actium," Professor Peter Green calls this "select club of progressive Hellenizers" a "specially favored cosmopolitan class dedicated to social and political self-advancement," seeking "sociological privilege and status."

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