It’s time for my annual Hanukkah message. I’ve been doing this off-and-on since 1972, when an article I wrote was featured in a Jewish student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin—which seems to be defunct. There was a new Chabad rabbi in town for the new position of any sort of Chabad presence at UW whose name as I recall it was R. Shmudkin. The Hillel rabbi at that time, R. Alan Lettofsky, was going to be out of town, so he invited R. Shmudkin to lead students in reciting the Hanukkah blessings.
I was one of the last students to arrive so there was a bit of a crowd and I stood near the back. R. Shmudkin saw me and raised his eyebrows. He said, “I see that Jack Love has joined us. Jack, perhaps you’d like to excuse yourself as we are about to recite the blessing honoring the Maccabees.” Two things startled me about this. First, that he knew who I was, and second, that he apparently had read my article. I just chuckled and said, “I’ve been lighting the Menorah since I was 5 years old, so I think I’ll keep doing it.” And a brief but lovely service ensued.
My life and career have endured many twists and turns since then, and I suspect that if R. Shmudkin is still around somewhere he is even less happy with my views now than he was then. But I guess he would be happy to know that all these years later I and my family are still delighted to kindle the Hanukkah lights on one of the dozen or so Hanukkah lamps that beautify our home.
What had so disturbed R. Shmudkin is that in my senior year at UW, I had done a lot of research on the ancient history of the Near East. Steeped in the writings of historians such as Victor Tcherikover, Alexander Fuchs, Menachem Stern, and Elias Bickerman I came to understand that a considerable part of the narrative surrounding the origin of Hanukkah was just a fairy tale. In fact, the great devil of the era, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was not attempting to destroy the valiant God-fearing Jews, he had simply been invited into a struggle among rival factions of Judeans by one of those factions. In other words, it was a civil war and Antiochus decided to intervene on the side of the faction that offered him the most reward. And unfortunately for him, the other side won.
Most modern Jews imagine that we know all about the Maccabees and their struggle because of the preservation of such sources as the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees and the historian Josephus. In fact, the ancient rabbis rejected all those sources and had nothing to do with their preservation. We owe the existence of those sources to Christians. As it happens, the early Church was particularly interested in stories of martyrdom, and as for Josephus, they thought that he had described the era of Jesus and even mentioned Jesus in his Antiquities. The rabbis cared for none of this. But about 1500 years after the Maccabees some Jews also felt that it was important to recall ancient Jewish victories. Having nothing of their own, they plagiarized Josephus, added in a few tales from the Midrash, and published Sefer Yospipon (The Book of Joseph). The conceit was that they had discovered this book written by another of Josephus’ fellow generals in the Roman War of his era. Sefer Yosippon has the same relationship to Josephus as exists between the Gospels and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
If this is the case, where does our festival of Hanukkah come from? The ancient rabbis faced exactly the same problem that confronted early Christian authorities. That problem was that no matter what they might have argued as religious doctrine, the general populace was not going to be dissuaded from recognizing the change of seasons and most especially, the Winter Solstice. Christians solved the problem by moving the birth of Jesus to a day that is unsupported by their own Gospels. The rabbis composed a tale of the miraculous purification of the Temple by oil which though only sufficient for one day, nevertheless lasted for eight. And this event just happened to coincide with the coronation celebration of the hated Maccabean kings—and so could replace any notion of that in the popular imagination. This tale, by the way, is not recorded in any of the most ancient sources of the rabbis, but rather in the Babylonian Talmud, (Shabbat 21a). The earliest date that could be ascribed to this tale is 300 C.E. and a century or two after that is more likely.
Ultimately, who cares? None of this matters to me as I enjoy the potato pancakes and see the joy in the eyes of my children and grandchildren as they light the candles with us and look forward to treats and toys. Religion is not about history, but rather about what we make of it. History and religion are, as Stephen Jay Gould said, “non-overlapping magisteria.”
About 10 years after R. Shmudkin led the Hanukkah service at UW Hillel, I met the woman who would become the love of my life. We were married on 28 Kislev 5744, the 4th day of Hanukkah, 1983.