Virtual Talmud

Christopher Hitchens is more than a clever chap. He is one of those rare public intellectuals that no matter what is the subject matter being addressed one can sit and listen to him rant and rave for hours on end. Few posses as good of a grasp on so many topics. But with all his brilliance the past couple of years Hitchens has played more the role of provocateur than the deep thoughtful and incisive thinker. No I don’t just mean his honest but misguided support of the Iraq war (many made such a mistake). We all sometime call them the wrong way. Hitchens latest misfire is far more problematic, namely it has been on the role of religion.

Earlier this year Hitchens published his secular tirade, “Why God is not Great,” which more than anything else was a book on why black and white depictions of religion get you nowhere fast in understanding anyone who believes anything. Of course, I agree with Hitchens that fundementalism–religious, secular or any other–is bad for the world. But Hitchens fails to understand the real allures of religion and why it continues to capture the hearts and souls of so many people around the world. Most recently, he used the holiday of Hanukkah as a launching pad for another attack against religion. In a recent essay published in Slate, Hitchens characterizes the holiday as a celebration of Jewish backwardness. There, he argues:
“Thus, to celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity.”
For Hitchen’s, Hanukkah is a celebration the victory of Jerusalem over Athens, faith over reason, and Jewish tribalism over universal Greek thought. To some degree Hitchen’s is right. There are a some sources that go in his direction and a few writers and rabbis that continue to see the holiday as some great ideological battle. As we saw in Rabbi Grossman’s neo-Marxist reading of Hanukkah, like Hitchen’s, she sees the holiday as being about some war of ideologies. (Whereas for Hitchen’s Hanukkah is a clash of civilizations story, for Grossman, it’s a battle against big business). While there is no doubt that such elements exist in the Hanukah story (though I doubt the two thousand-year-old book of the Macabees had much, if anything, to do with Fortune Five Hundred companies), the rabbis of the Talmud present a very different understanding of what the holiday stands for. In the tractate Avodah Zarah we are told:
“When Adam saw the day gradually diminishing, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps because I sinned, the world around me is growing darker and darker, and is about to return to chaos and confusion, and this is the death heaven has decreed for me. He then sat eight days in fast and prayer. But when the winter solstice arrived, and he saw the days getting gradually longer, he said, “Such is the way of the world,” and proceeded to observe eight days of festivity. The following years he observed both the eight days preceding and the eight days following the solstice as days of festivity.” (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 8a)
As Rabbi Shimon Felix explained to a group of us at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, what we call Hanukkah–where we light candles for eight days–is actually a holiday that celebrates the human ability to understand nature. In other words, Hitchens could not be more wrong. Hanukkah is the most universal of holidays–a holiday whose origins revolve around honoring the most basic form of human reason and realizing the rhythm and logic of the natural order of things. Not only is Hanukkah’s origins not tribal, cultic or Jewishly particularistic, but rather it is just the opposite. It is a holiday that gives dignity to human wisdom and understanding over and against fear and superstition.

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