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?
BY: David Klinghoffer
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."
It all starts to sound like a Tom Wolfe novel. The secular elite were so determined to drive their religious fellow countrymen, whom they regarded as socially inferior, from the capital that finally they took the step of outlawing Jewish practice in Jerusalem itself. The Hellenized Jews burned books of the Torah, made circumcision a capital offense, and sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar.
This drove the religiously faithful--the "fundamentalists," as the Hellenizers would have called them if they had spoken modern American English--to revolt. Pitting Jew against Jew, the resulting civil war was led by the Maccabee brothers, who whupped the forces of "liberal polytheism," as Green puts it. The conservatives, he continues, "were stronger, and more numerous, and the more passionate in their beliefs: they stood firm in the face of odds, and were prepared to make sacrifices, indeed to die, for what they held most dear." Shades of the 2004 presidential election? Maybe so. And this conservative victory is what Jews for 2000 years have celebrated at Hanukkah.
The same conflict reflected in the Hanukkah story is still being enacted down to our own time. Though every Jewish festival has its unique relevance to our contemporary lives, Hanukkah's relevance is especially provocative and especially political.