Jew vs. Jew, or the Festival of Fights: Gordon Haber on the Secret Contentious History of Hanukkah

There are a lot of different ways of thinking about Hanukkah, but we tend to forget that the holiday is very much about intra-Jewish conflict.

The Festival of Lights, as you know, commemorates the restoration of the Temple in 164 BCE. After kicking out the Seleucids — whom we might call today “culturally Greek Syrians” — the Maccabees needed oil for the Temple purification ritual. The miracle, as the story goes, was that one night’s worth of oil lasted eight.

Which is great. But then as now, Jews argued over who is Jewish enough, or Jewish in the right way — remember, the Maccabbees went to war not only against the Seleucids but also against their fellow Jews whom they deemed insufficiently pious.

One lesson we can take from the Maccabbees, other than that Jews don’t have to take crap from anybody, is that intra-communal contentiousness is not a good foundation for governance. The Macabbean revolt led to the relatively brief and unstable era of Hasmonean rule. A century after Judah and sons sent the Syrians packing, his descendants Hyrcanus and Aristobolus were fighting for the crown.

The Talmud gives us an apocryphal taste of this bitter fight. Baba Kamma 82b explains that Hyrcanus’s forces were within the walls of Jerusalem and Aristobulus’s without. Every day, Hyrcanus’s men would let down a basket full of cash to pay Aristobulus’s men for cattle to use as Temple sacrifices. (There is no mention of how baskets could be strong enough to lift cattle, but never mind.) This uneasy agreement — the mutual understanding that whichever way politics goes, you still have to serve the Lord — ended when one of Hyrcanus’s men with some “Grecian” knowledge pointed out that they wouldn’t win so long as their enemies got to perform the sacrifices. So they sent up a pig instead:

“When the swine reached the centre of the wall it stuck its claws into the wall, and Eretz Yisrael quaked over a distance of four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs. It was proclaimed on that occasion: Cursed be the man who would breed swine and cursed be the man who would teach his son Grecian Wisdom.”

This passage raises two questions: first, since when do pigs have claws? And second, it’s hard to see how the sages can blame “Grecian wisdom” when it was Jews using a kind of biological weapon against other Jews. In other words, you don’t have to be an assimilationist to know what it means to send a pig into the holy city. You just have to hate your fellow Jews more than you desire ritual purity.

The question for me as an apikoros is less about purity than it is about the bitterness and disrespect amongst Jewish communities. For example, on the one hand we have the Jews who believe that Israel is the most horrible place in the world and shouldn’t exist, and on the other the Jews who think it can do no wrong. And each side believes that the other will be the destruction of all Jews everywhere.

It may be a bit wishy-washy for me to say in this time of heightened emotions “a plague on both your houses,” and I’ll accept than criticism. Because I don’t have any salutary lesson to offer, merely the observation that for millennia we have been arguing over the right way to express our Judaism. For what does every Jew have in common but the certainty that their own Jewish path is the most reasonable or righteous?

Hanukkah is fun. And it should be. But maybe this year, between spins of the dreidl, we can also ask ourselves why we’re all so ready to send up a pig to the other side.