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Why Christopher Hitchens Just Doesn’t Get It

I was as aghast as Rabbi Stern was by Christopher Hitchens’ article on Hanukkah in Slate from last week. Not because of the venomous rhetoric or offensive bombast–this is Hitchens’ stock-in-trade and without it it’s not clear anyone would know or care what he says.
What I found so appalling in Hitchens’ piece was how dramatically mistaken he is in his misguided efforts to uncover “the true meaning of Hanukkah.” Looking back at the historical events surrounding the birth of the holiday, Hitchens envisions Hanukkah as a victory for narrow-minded and superstitious fundamentalism (i.e. the Maccabees) over enlightened philosophical reason (i.e. the Seleucid Greeks, the victory over whom Hanukkah celebrates). Since enlightened philosophical reason is better than narrow-minded superstitious fundamentalism in Hitchens’ book, ipso facto anyone who celebrates Hanukkah is a retrograde philistine, Quod Erat Demonstrandum.


Of course what Hitchens utterly fails to recognize is that religious meanings and rituals are not frozen at a moment in time. Like any organic and dynamic system, religions evolve. So for the ancient rabbis, Hanukkah wasn’t about a military victory; it was about trusting Divine providence rather than our own power: “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6) In medieval times when Jews suffered the tribulations of living as despised denizens of Christian Europe, Hanukkah took on a more messianic tone, the hope for a coming redemption to deliver God’s people from their wretched state. In Chasidic thought, the message of Hanukkah was spiritualized: finding and increasing our own inner light, those sparks of God within each and every one of us, against the darkness of this physical world. For the early Zionists, Hanukkah became a symbol of Jewish power–Jews fighting for independence and self-determination in their own land. And for American Jews for much of the twentieth century, Hanukkah was a holiday of religious liberty–of an oppressed minority standing up for the right to worship freely.
Which of these many and varied interpretations is “the true meaning of Hanukkah”? They all are. The power of religious ritual and symbolism is that it has the capacity to bear an ever-expanding and evolving range of meanings rather than be captured in amber at a particular historic moment. Hitchens’ mistake–like that of all fundamentalists–is to think that if he can just strip away enough layers he will arrive at the truth. Unfortunately, he cannot see that it is the layers themselves that are the holiday’s true meaning.

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posted December 13, 2007 at 5:42 pm

I have to agree with Rabbi Waxman. As a friend of mine at the leftist College i attended for my undergrad once told me:”History is written by the Victors, never the victims). However while jews have rarely been the victors, it is in the interpretation that the beauty shines. Is there a True meaning to any event? Events only have meaning is we imbue them with such. One could argue that by the ancient rabbis’ playing up the miracle of the oil, they wanted to gloss over the fact that after the wars of the maccabees, they in turn forced other people to convert or die, one of whome eventually became the Herod of the Story of the birth of jesus, or that the jews would have invited the romans in, and basically set up for the Roman Occupation.

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Rabbi Phil Cohen

posted December 13, 2007 at 6:57 pm

It’s true I think as Rabbi Waxman says that religions evolve. Every Hanukkah I take great pleasure in reviewing the broader story of Hanukkah to folks who don’t seem to remember from year to year that the tiny cruse oil story only appears 650 or so years after the Maccabean war. That is, I take pleasure in pointing out how a historic event morphed into something undreamed of at the time of the event and that may be more meaningful than the event. Yet, from time to time I wonder what the world would be like without said war. That’s the point of Hitchens’ Slate article: Without the Maccabean war there might not have been Christianity and even Islam. Maybe, maybe not.
Yet Hitchens’ point is as least arguable. It is possible to read the Maccabees as a bunch of Luddites who resented Plato and Aristotle. Jews have always had their problems with Plato and Aristotle. Just think of the Maimonidean Controversy. The war against the Syrian Greeks might have been a war against intellectual progree that mired the Jewish people in a religious and political sinkhole.
But the story also contains the whiff of relgious persecution; the Temple after all was defiled. If I remember from readings long ago for unknown reasons Antiochus started behaving rather badly, and it was this bad behavior that formed the tipping point in favor of war. Is reading Plato and participating naked in sporting events enough reason to tolerate the intolerant? Dunno. I wasn’t there.
Meanwhile, we have this lovely eight day holiday that pulls us out of the winter doldrums and reminds us that there is a transcendent dimension to our reality. Can lighting candles, worshiping God, and eating fried foods possibly top reading The Republic? Well, baruch Hashem, I don’t have to worry about the choice, as I can do both. As for what a world without Christianity and Islam would be like, who knows? It’s not our world. Some sci fi writer will have to play with that one.

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laura mushkat

posted December 14, 2007 at 12:10 pm

I always loved Channukah as one of the first if not the first fight that we know of for practicing religon without fear from the government.
I am glad that we make a big deal of it now even tho it is mainly because of its closeness to the Christian holiday.
As for the fact that things were written thousands of years later-it could have been made up ofcourse, or it could have been finally written down-me for the last idea!

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posted December 14, 2007 at 5:12 pm

Thank you Rabbi for a most interesting comment. None of us really know the true nature of God or “his” miracles. Hitchens thinks he does, but that’s like an ant on a grave marker reflecting on the nature of the universe.

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posted December 14, 2007 at 9:53 pm

Now, at last, I understand the relevance of the dreidel. What’s Chanukah really all about? It’s all about the spin. If you put Rabbi Waxman and Christopher Hitchens together, you get the truth, which is to say that Chanukah is in the eye of the beholder…or the celebrant. I am sympathetic with the Hitchens position, and have been there for many years. But I like What Rabbi Waxman offers about the various ways that the meaning of Chanukah changes with the needs of the society and times in which it is celebrated. Meanwhile, I love to light the candles, and I love the warmth of the holiday, and I loved it especially when my children were young and had something big to celebrate around the time of the winter solstice, just like their Christian friends had.

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posted December 17, 2007 at 3:09 pm

If you read Maimonides’ Guide and Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari, you will see that both Halevi and Maimonides were in fact 100% in line with Plato. So too al-Farabi.

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posted December 25, 2007 at 8:38 pm

The Macabees were fighting Hellenized Assyrians who wanted Jews to worship statues of Zeus and Athena. They were not followers of Plato and Aristotle. They murdered Jews who continued to practice thier religion. I fail to understand why Hitchens regrets their defeat.
Ruvein, you’re right. Jewish philosophers from Philo onward were much better students of the Greek philosphers than the Assyrians ever were. I would add that the Rabbis used the Socratic method in their debated that became the Mishnah and Gemmerah.

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posted December 28, 2007 at 11:28 am

Christopher Hitchens is actually aligning himself with the forces of repression, and that is why he hates Hanukkah. Imperialist Greeks abandoned the tolerance of Alexander for brutal repression by elites that wanted to force mass assimilationat the point of a sword.
That is an understandable POV for a self-hating Jew, but what is so funny is how he assumes a “Moral Calculus for the universe” in calling religion “wrong” and “evil” when the most he should say is that I really really don’t like religion or religious identity. Believeing in a “Moral Calculus for the universe” leaves you stuck with a God of some description.

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