Hanukkah Message 2019

It’s time for a personal long-standing tradition, a Hanukkah message. I wrote the first one in 1972 for the University of Wisconsin Jewish student newspaper. In it I explained that in reality, Hanukkah celebrates not a victory of a small band of Jewish partisans over the hated Syrian government, but rather commemorates a civil war in which various Jewish factions were pitted against one another.That Hanukkah, I entered the Hillel Foundation intending to celebrate with my fellow students only to find a “guest” had been invited to light the Hanukkah candelabra: Rabbi Schmudken who had recently assumed the job of creating a Chabad House in Madison. R. Schmudken saw me (we had previously met), arched his eyebrows and intoned, “Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we celebrate the Hasmoneans.” I just chuckled as I knew he was just kibbitzing (kidding), but it does suggest a bit of tension between religious sensibility and historical reality.

The greatest irony, however, is that the rabbinate represents in essence the very opposite of Hasmonean culture. Notice that I used the word “Jewish” to describe the partisans who were striking against the Syrian overlords and their “Jewish” allies. But what does that word “Jewish” mean in the context of these times? These were people struggling for territory they regarded as theirs by Divine right, and above all a place where they believed God is somehow manifest. They believed in sacrificing animals and offering grain for the sustenance of God. For them, all authority was vested in the Priesthood. When they did assume power, for many years they took the role of High Priest and only later that of King.

Contrast that with the religion that both I and R. Schmudken participate in. For us, the priests (cohanim) have a greatly diminished role–and virtually no authority whatsoever. Instead we place authority in the hands of educated people we call rabbis who have not the slightest necessity to be related to the kings, prophets or priests of old. We seek our religious center not in the Temple of Jerusalem, but in synagogues which we can build anywhere we live. We honor the requirements of sacrifice by a system of virtual replacements–for example, when we slaughter animals for meat, we use the symbolism of the priesthood and the Temple in pouring out the blood and then drawing out even more with salt. When we bake bread we tear off a bit of dough and burn it as a symbolic acknowledgment of the grain offerings.

The institution of the rabbinate did not exist in the days of Judah the Maccabee, and Josephus reports that members of the Hasmonean dynasty persecuted the Pharisees who are often imagined to be the ancestors of the rabbis. Once the Temple was gone, the landscape was cleared for people other than the priests to claim authority. By the time two centuries had passed without a Temple, the rabbis were growing in number and authority–simply because people were persuaded that the rabbis knew the right way to do things. Eventually these rabbis set their principles down in a series of books: their interpretations of Scripture and most importantly the various building blocks of the vast library called the Talmud. All of this became the rabbinic claim to supersede the priesthood. And it is the religious practice first established in the Talmud, adjudicated by rabbis, that remains the dominant form of Judaism today. In a very substantial sense, rabbinic Judaism is Judaism, and there really was something else before the rabbis assumed their authoritative roles.

The institution of the holiday of Hanukkah perfectly illustrates what happened. When the Maccabees had their victory and retook the Temple of Jerusalem, they instituted a coronation ceremony for their priest-kings. These Hasmoneans, as the family dynasty became known, felt a need to justify their claim to power. The dedication holiday they held for the Temple lasted for eight days most likely to emulate the Temple dedication festival of Solomon described in 2 Chronicles 7:8ff.

When the rabbis fixed the celebration of Hanukkah, they did so with a tale of a miracle: a candelabra which had enough oil for one day but which lasted for the eight necessary for re-dedicating the Temple. They said not a word about Hasmoneans, this holiday had nothing to with them but everything to do asserting their own authority over the religion. The rabbis also fixed the time for Hanukkah very close to the Winter Solstice, perhaps to divert attention away from Pagan and later Christian adoptions of celebrations of that event.

Today, of course, every Jewish child learns about the heroic Hasmoneans. If the rabbis buried the history of the Hasmoneans, how did this come to be? Therein lies a great irony. While the rabbis made no effort to preserve the historical works of Josephus, and likewise had no use for the books of the Maccabees, Christians did. Christians even regarded the Maccabees 1 and 2 as Scripture. About a thousand years after the time of the Maccabees, Jews living as minorities both in Christian and Muslim lands felt great pressure to justify their historical glories. The victories of the Hasmoneans which they learned about through Christian copyists became a useful tool for asserting the great military prowess of ancient Jews. One Jewish author, probably living in Italy in the 10th century, created a mash-up of Josephus with various legendary materials and called his book Sefer Yossipon. Yossipon was a different general than Josephus, one who could not be tarred with the label of traitor to the Jews. But of course, essentially all the historical material in the book is plagiarized from Josephus.

And so we came full circle. The rabbis who initially suppressed the Hasmoneans recreated them and the modern holiday of Hanukkah emerged: a solstice festival which combines both the original myth of the eight days of oil with the military gallantry of the Hasmoneans.

But you see, by the 10th century, the rabbis knew they had won. No priests or royals existed to threaten their authority. So let the good times roll!

Mr. Jake Brannum wrote:

Perhaps the most obvious growing difference between the East and the West was the use of language. Although when the Empire had initially been split into two governances, Latin had remained the official language of administration for both halves, the language of the secular elite and of church liturgy was divided: Greek in the East and Latin in the West. Already by the 5th century and Emperor Leo I, the Eastern emperors themselves had begun to legislate in Greek (90), demonstrating that the divide between the two halves was already well under way before the so-called Fall of the West in 476. With the different languages came different texts, different liturgies, different Bibles, resulting in early irreconcilable cultures between the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire that would only continue to increase as time went on.

I would like to agree, disagree and expand on the notion of the language basis of differentiation in the Empire (whether we are speaking of Rome or the period after the end of unified government in the west). It is absolutely true that language can be a barrier. The Greeks famously coined the term “barbarian” as some sort onomatopoeic reflection of the sounds of non-Greek languages and there isn’t much question that the intent was disparagement.

In addition, even the division into Latin versus Greek is a vast oversimplification. While Latin does seem to have pervaded most of the Roman West giving rise to what we call Romance languages today, Greek was by no means the only competing language. In Egypt, always among the most populous parts of the Mediterranean, large numbers of people retained descendants of the language of the ancient Pharaohs. In mid-East, Aramaic replaced Hebrew as a lingua franca, but Hebrew was retained as a literary language–and more on that in a moment. And further east, while Greek can be found as far as Bactria, most populations spoke variations of Persian and other languages native to the region. To the south-east, Arabic was widespread.

Despite all that variation, many within the educated elite could deal with both Latin and Greek, and therefore the cultural divide was not quite so high. I’d like to focus on one important moment in the history of linguistic issues to illustrate how sometimes things worked in unexpected ways.

Once Rome accepted Christianity, one of the ramifications of that decision was a necessity to publish the Scripture on which the religion was based. While many people today would imagine that the original language of Scripture was Hebrew (at least what we now call “the Old Testament”), the situation was a bit more complicated than that. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews (using the term loosely) had long claimed that a translation of Scripture into Greek was nothing less than divinely inspired (Letter of Aristeas). To make a long story short, despite centuries of research and the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is quite impossible to determine whether the current Hebrew text (more on that in a moment) or Greek text (the “Septuagint”) is more reliable, and the overwhelming majority of scholars agree that in specific instances there is evidence on both sides.

At the time the first texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint were being copied and transmitted around the Mediterranean, first by Jewish and later by Christian copyists and communities, there was also a translation of the texts into Latin. This version is known as the Vetus Latina.

In the very late fourth century (CE) Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin. It is difficult to know exactly how he went about establishing the Hebrew text, most scholars presume that he was able to use a mss of Origen’s Hexapla despite Origen having by then been declared a heretic. Jerome mentions on a few occasions consulting Jews, and several studies have demonstrated that whatever text he used was closely related to the text that would become the basis of later Hebrew Bibles (the Masoretic Text). In doing this, he privileged that text over the Greek of the Septuagint.

Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) was acclaimed and widely distributed. This had an odd consequence: the original Latin text (the Vetus Latina) was so thoroughly supplanted that today we are unable to reproduce it. It survives in more than 27 different versions and there is little question that large portions of these variants were not from whatever the original might have been but rather copied from patristics or even the Vulgate itself. And the reason this is important is that the Vetus Latina is in itself a witness to the Septuagint (which also has a very complex manuscript history) which has to be regarded as a core text of the original Bible. In essence, when we compare the Vulgate to the Hebrew Bible of today, we are comparing two sides of the same coin!

Jews are found in lesser or greater numbers throughout the territories of the Roman Empire including all those places in the Roman West that waned and waxed after the mid-fifth century. They carried their sacred texts and their Hebrew and Aramaic languages wherever they went. In some places, the walls between Hebrew study and Latin or Greek were very high. But here and there we find breaches in those walls. A Jerome who, despite many seemingly antisemitic viewpoints, nevertheless is happy to make use of Jewish education in his efforts. Christians and Jews connected and learned from each other, if only sporadically and often because a Jew had converted to Christianity.

But Jews also borrowed from Christian sources when they deemed it necessary. Lacking a copy of Josephus’s works in any Jewish language because the books were preserved by Christians and ignored by Jews for almost a milennium, a tenth century Jew, probably in Italy, created a pastiche of Josephus adding in various legends from rabbinic sources and called his work “Yossipon” (a variant on the name Josephus).

Itinerant Jews learned the language of the communities among which they sojourned. Abraham ibn Ezra was born in Muslim Spain (most of his children would convert to Islam) and acquired a deep knowledge of Arabic culture, language and science. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, he traveled and taught in North Africa, Italy and France and even England. Many of his works survive: treatises on philosophy, mathematics, grammar, astronomy, astrology, and above all commentaries on the Bible. He was a great defender of Sa’adia Ga’on, who lived in the far eastern part of the Jewish world (Sura, Babylonia, now Iraq).

And so we see that despite the vast distances and language barriers, a Jew born in eleventh century Spain could know the works of an Iraqi and teach them in England.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Or Not)

In his monumental work The Inheritance of Rome, Chris Wickham lays claim to righting several major errors in twentieth century historiography. But the mile-high view, it seemed to me, didn’t depart very much from the picture long familiar to me. In the East, Rome continued to be represented by Byzantium with Roman values gradually subsumed into Christian ones. In the West, Rome itself became increasingly isolated as the once unified western half changed into a variety of states ruled by successions of invaders (infiltrators?) from the North. Goths, Visigoths, Angles, Jutes and Saxons.

I did learn a great deal from those parts of the book which relented from the recitation of endless succession lines of a dozen or more “barbarian” polities. In the area of language, while we know that Romance languages are all descended from Latin, Wickam explains that most of the invaders actually spoke and even read Latin. Writing was more of a professional skill, so the elites who need something memorialized would dictate to a professional scribe. What was new to me is understanding that many of these may have done their dictation in Latin rather than relying on the scribe to both translate and write.

Nevertheless, these revelations raised more questions for me. Why did some groups adopt Latin and speak its variants, while others did not? Most of the invaders as early as the 5th century were variants of Germanic (Teutonic) speaking people, yet German, Norse, Dansk, and the languages of the Celts remained largely untouched by Latin. Modern English is the great melting pot between Teutonic and Latin… Still, I wanted to hear more about Greek in the East. After all, Greek does seem to have lasted in Asia Minor until the Turkish conquest. And what of Aramaic there and Coptic in Egypt?

Wickham is undoubtedly correct in asserting that there was no sudden “Fall” of Rome, but rather a gradual transformation which differed from locale to locale across the West, and something entirely different in the East.

I am running out of time for these comments today, but if I can find a few more minutes before the seminar, I would like to discuss a (very) few comments Wickham made about Jews in the (no longer) Dark Ages.

In particular, it would have been good to have heard something about how Jews fit into the economic and legal environment. Jews had a particular, one might even say peculiar, place in Roman legal texts. A status that somehow survived three or more severe revolts against Roman authority. Wickham notes [p. 133-4] that the Visigothic rulers of Iberia passed harsh legislation de-legitimizing Judaism and enslaving the Jews. He then notes that as harsh as the legislation might seem, it was not out of line with “Roman” law regarding heretics. But pre-Christian Roman law excluded Jewish persecution (other than taxation after 70 CE). I also wondered whether we have evidence that any of these laws were actually enforced–indeed, were there actually any Jews who would be affected by them?

A quote that intrigued me: “The political fragmentation of the western church and the absence of heresy were, as has been implied, linked: people simply did not have regular information about what was going on outside their own local and regional circuits.” [p. 171] Although I can’t be sure that communication was speedy during Roman imperial times, the implication to me seems to be that we are dealing with a “dark age” comparatively speaking!

One aspect I followed with interest was the discussion of the promulgation and collection of laws. I haven’t read the chapters on Byzantium yet, but I know that the Eastern Roman Empire was a focal point for the collection and systematization of law. Nothing like this seems to have occurred to Jews that early, despite the ancient interest of Jews in the law–indeed the most sacred text of the Jews was called “The Law” (Torah). The earliest attempt at systematizing the law in Judaism, to the best of my knowledge, was that of Rabbeinu Hannael. He lived in Islamic Africa in the first decades after the turn of the millennium. And nothing resembling a true code of laws existed until the Mishne Torah of Maimonides, more than a century later. Maimonides too lived and worked under Islam.

Wickham does devote a number of sections to understanding class and gender issues. I was intrigued by several cases where Wickham discussed documents that seemed to contradict long established legal norms. Was this common or rare?

While Rome, especially in Byzantium, was long occupied with creating “digests” or collections of legal principles,