Posts Tagged ‘Maccabees’

Dreams and Stories: Parshat Vayeishev

December 14, 2020

This past weekend it was my turn to deliver the D’var Torah (commentary on Torah, like a sermon) at Temple Sinai’s Zoom Shabbat service. The weekly Torah portion covered Genesis 37:1−40:23. Here’s what I wrote.

This week we begin the saga of Joseph, whose brothers bitterly called him “the master of dreams.” This will be a drash about dreams and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

But this week also happens to be Chanukah, which gives us the opportunity to compare two very different set of brothers in Jewish history. 

The Maccabees were five brothers—sons of a Jewish priest—who with their father led a revolt against the Greek rulers of Judaea in the second century BCE; the success of their revolt is commemorated by Chanukah. We don’t have details about how those Maccabee brothers got along with each other. But to win a guerrilla war against such a powerful establishment they would have had to work together very well, to communicate with each other—in short to be unified.  

Joseph and his 11 brothers are a different matter. 

Rather than standing behind his father, one son, Reuben, sleeps with his father’s concubine. The sons identify themselves in factions based on their four different mothers—for instance, one verse tells us how Joseph worked as a helper “to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah.” And the brothers are in conflict with Joseph from the very start of the story, partly due to Jacob favoring Joseph.

“And when [Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”

The brothers hate Joseph so much they decide to kill him—then with a slight change in plans sell him into slavery—and lie to their father about his fate.

Given a choice, of course we would all want our children to be Maccabee siblings rather than Joseph’s siblings. 

So this is another way to think about the Chanukah miracle—not just the oil burning miraculously for eight days, not just feisty farmers miraculously defeating an imperial power—but five siblings who miraculously manage to respect each other and work together and learn from each other. 

In the unhappier story of Joseph, one of the things that turns his brothers against him are two dreams that he recounts to them—one where they’re all gathering wheat, and the brothers’ sheaves bow down to Joseph’s sheaves, and the other where the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. 

“His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?’ And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.”

Dreams are perplexing. From the beginning of humankind, we’ve been mystified and terrified and inspired by dreams, and have struggled to understand where they come from and what they mean. 

One of the oldest ways of making sense of dreams is to view them as direct messages from a supernatural being. We see that earlier in the Torah, when we are told that God came to King Abimelech in a dream and ordered him not to marry Sarah. 

Another approach is to view dreams as portents of the future—not as direct as Abimelech’s “phone call” from God, but something that, if interpreted properly, lets you know in advance what will happen. Joseph does this kind of interpreting in Egypt when he says that Pharoah’s dream of seven fat cows followed by seven gaunt cows is a prediction of good harvests followed by famine. 

More than a century ago, Freud suggested that dreams are the upwelling of uncomfortable or taboo thoughts that we shut out from our conscious minds. 

Neuroscientists today would give us an explanation based on brain circuitry. Our Aunt Sadie might say bad dreams are a result of too many latkes and sufganiot. The Talmud suggests that a dream is 1/60th of a prophecy…. and these are just some of the different ways that people have to tried make sense of the phenomenon of dreaming. 

I’d like to go in a slightly different direction. Let’s set aside the biological or mystical reasons Joseph had those dreams, and not worry about whether they came from God or from a latke overdose. 

Let’s think about Joseph’s dreams as stories. And let’s look at the function that those dreams—or stories—played within his already-conflicted family.

Here we have a family riven by power inequity. As the late-in-life child of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, Joseph came into the world with an advantage over his brothers. He was Jacob’s favorite from the start, even though the others were older. Jacob showed his favoritism with the gift of that famous, beautiful, many-colored coat. You might say Joseph was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. You might say he was born with privilege.

His brothers didn’t like that. Joseph must surely have been aware of their resentment.

And so—here we are getting away from text and into speculation, but bear with me—perhaps these stories of the sheaves and the stars were intended to justify his privilege

Perhaps Joseph shared those dreams of the bowing sheaves and stars to explain why he deserved his special status within the family:

“See? Dad was right to give me that coat—Dad is right to single me out—because I’m special! These dreams say so, and dreams don’t lie!” 

Even if Joseph didn’t intend it that way, that could easily have been the message that his brothers took from those dreams. 

The dreams were stories that filled a function—rightly or wrongly—of justifying Joseph’s status as the privileged, favorite child. 

The dreams provided a rationale for injustice in the small, intimate world of Jacob’s family.

Similarly, societies create stories to rationalize their injustices. This can happen through scientific and historic myth-making—for instance, when 19th century white male scientists claimed that women and black people were naturally inferior because they supposedly had smaller skull sizes. 

Today we live in a society that, like Joseph’s family, is riven by power inequity. Whatever metric you choose—money, housing, healthy food, good medical care, job options, a sense of physical safety, connections to people who run our institutions—some people have a lot and others have very little. 

The people who have a lot often tell stories that explain why they deserve it. Like Joseph’s dream, their stories paint their privilege as part of the natural order—logical, unarguable, even just.

“I came up with a better idea.” “I’m smarter than those other guys.” “I worked my butt off, and they’re just plain lazy.” “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” 

Parts of those stories may be true. But there’s usually more to it than that.

Most of us in this Zoom service benefit from some kind of privilege. You don’t have to be Bill Gates or live in a mansion to benefit from privilege. We can be powerful in one facet of our lives, yet vulnerable in other facets. 

For instance, as a white person I feel a sense of physical safety around police officers that many people of color wouldn’t feel. That’s privilege. Yet as a woman, I feel vulnerable walking past a construction site of cat-calling men. Powerful in one area; not so powerful in the other. 

As a child, I grew up with immense class and race privilege that I took for granted. I never noticed it because it seemed so normal to me. I had a father who earned enough money that my mother could stay home and give us huge amounts of attention. A public school that was wealthy enough to have an orchestra and lend us violins to take home! Streets that were safe and stores that welcomed our teenage browsing, even if we didn’t buy anything. Relatives who were lawyers and doctors and so made the question for me not IF I would go to college but WHERE I would go to college….

Put that all together, and I grew up with a sense that the world valued me and was safe for me. A belief that I could go out into that world and use my voice and take risks and succeed.  

That all seemed as natural as air to me, just as Jacob’s preferential love must have seemed as natural as air to Joseph.

And yet so many people don’t have all or even a part of that.

In telling the story of our own successes, honesty requires us to acknowledge our privilege—the places where we’ve benefitted from an uneven playing field. 

Jewish ethics then requires us to seek ways to even out that playing field. 

I invite you to take a minute now to think about your own life. In what ways, are you privileged? 

Have you benefited from advantages of economic class, race, gender, sexual orientation? From being part of a religious or ethnic majority? From birth order? From other kinds of privilege? 

Now consider the stories that you use to explain your own successes—to yourself, and also to others.  How honest are your stories? Do they acknowledge the role of privilege as well as personal initiative? Do your stories provide room for other people to succeed too? 

Do your stories build other people up or tear them down?

Imagine, for a moment, if Joseph had dreamed a different dream and told his brothers a different story. Say it was a story that instead of aggrandizing his own success, showed how he was connected with his brothers. That acknowledged his privilege, but showed how he could use it to elevate all of them. Perhaps:

I dreamed that twelve sheaves of wheat stood in a circle, side by side. One sheaf was taller since those stalks had received a lot more water. Its height attracted the notice of the king’s steward, who bought all twelve sheaves for a very high price and had them milled into flour for the most exquisite cakes—cakes whose recipes have been passed down through 4000 years of history.

With such a story, Joseph might not have ended up in a pit. He and his siblings might have been a family of Maccabees after all. 

Shabbat shalom.

My glorious Maccabees? — Part 3 of 3

December 5, 2010

When thinking about history, I reflexively picture myself in one camp or another. If I’m reading about 19th century New England, I wonder if I would have been a radical abolitionist or someone who said, “yes, slavery is wrong but give the South time to come to its senses.” When I think about Germany in the 1930s, I wonder if I would have had the foresight to get my family out or if I would have counted on things only getting so bad and no worse. 

Mattathias, father of the Maccabee brothers, killing an apostate - from a 19th century Christian Bible woodcut by Gustave Dore

With the Chanukah story, I’ve always pictured myself with the Maccabees. Who wouldn’t? They were common folks who rose up against tyranny and fought for religious freedom. (Just ask Howard Fast!) They were underdogs against a cruel empire. As guerrilla fighters, they couldn’t have won without broad support from the people, which implies they were just, wise, compassionate. 

Or were they? 

This fall, for an adult ed class on Jewish history at my temple, we read parts of Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. And Johnson paints a more complex picture: 

The Maccabean revolt grew at least partially out of tensions within the Judaean community over Hellenization – disagreement among Jews themselves over how much to adapt to Greek culture. 

Diaspora Jews of that time learned and spoke Greek, often using a Hellenic name for business and a Hebrew name at home. In Judaea, meanwhile, some Jews retreated from Greek influence and modern life to form desert sects such as the Essenes. Others – particularly the wealthy, urban, and educated — embraced Greek culture and its rational, universalistic philosophy. 

Johnson writes that these reformist Jews: 

“re-read the historical scriptures and tried to deprovincialize them. Were not Abraham and Moses… great citizens of the world? They embarked on the first Biblical criticism: the Law, as now written, was not very old and certainly did not go back to Moses. They argued that the original laws were far more universalistic… The reformers found the Torah full of fables and impossible demands and prohibitions…. (They) did not want to abolish the Law completely but to purge it of those elements which forbade participation in Greek culture… and reduce it to its ethical core, so universalizing it.”

Antiochus, the Syrian king who spurred the Maccabee revolt, didn’t act alone.  He had supporters among the urban pro-Hellenic Jews. But Johnson argues that the pro-Hellenists erred in trying to impose “reform from above.”  They alienated the masses of poor rural Jews, who became the Maccabees’ support base.

So the rebellion that we now celebrate with Chanukah targeted not just a brutal Syrian occupier but internal Jewish reformers. And the Maccabees’ victory was a defeat not only of extreme Hellenization, but also of moderate reform. 

Johnson writes:

“The zeal and intensity of the (reformers’) assault on the Law aroused a corresponding zeal for the Law, narrowing the vision of the Jewish leadership and pushing ever more deeply into a Torah-centered religion. With their failure, the reformers discredited the notion of reform itself, or even any discussion of the nature and direction of the Jewish religion. Such talk was henceforth denounced in all the official texts as nothing less than total apostasy and collaboration with the foreign oppression, so that it became difficult for moderates of any kind… to get a hearing.”

Perhaps the Maccabees were for freedom of religion in the same way that the Pilgrim fathers of the Massachusetts Bay colony were — for themselves.

Not for anyone else.

In any case, the war launched by Judah and his brothers lasted on and off for 34 years, eventually leading to a dynasty of rulers descended from the Maccabees.

Johnson describes the Maccabees’ heirs as “petty despots.”  They allied themselves with the Sadducee faction within Judaism, which believed in a literal and unchanging interpretation of the writings of Torah — what today we would call fundamentalism.

Simon Maccabee’s third son, John Hyrcanus, “accepted as literal truth that the whole of Palestine was the divine inheritance of the Jewish nation, and that it was not merely his duty but his right to conquer it.”  To do this, he created the first mercenary army in Jewish history, pillaged and burned cities, and gave residents of non-Jewish areas a choice of conversion, expulsion or death.

The Maccabees, Johnson writes, were “brave, desperate, fanatical, strong-minded and violent.”

Would I really have been a Maccabee? 

Or might I have been one of those urban, reformist Jews – attracted to Greek culture, yearning to feel part of a broad pan-Mediterranean civilization, looking at the Torah as a historical document and focusing on the universal aspect of its values?

 That does sound a lot like me. Or like most of modern Reform and secular Judaism, in fact.

 And the Maccabees sound almost, eerily, like….. the Taliban???

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Note: Want more historical controversy over the Maccabees and the meaning of Chanukah? Thanks to Mary M. for pointing out this online essay. Be sure to read the full response by Rabbi Bruce Kahn in the comments section.

And for a really excellent summary and analysis of all the different interpretations of Chanukah and the Maccabees, check out this blog post by William Berkson on the Reform Judaism web site. Boy, if I’d seen this earlier, I could have skipped writing my own three blog posts and spent the time grating more latkes.  :-)

Enough yakking about history -- enjoy the latkes! / Photo by Ilana DeBare

My glorious Maccabees? – Part 2 of 3

December 3, 2010

It was a little like going to a high school reunion: I was curious how the years had treated an old friend whom I hadn’t glimpsed since I was a teenager. 

I’m talking about My Glorious Brothers, Howard Fast’s historical novel about the Maccabees, which I just re-read as part of my lead-up to Chanukah. 

If you’re not familiar with Fast, he was a prolific 20th century novelist whose other books include Citizen Tom Paine and Spartacus, the basis for the famous movie with Kirk Douglas. 

He also happened to be a committed socialist and a member of the Communist Party who spent three months in jail for refusing to name names, and who was blacklisted throughout the 1950s. (He self-published Spartacus when he could no longer write for established publishers.) 

Fast is no Joyce or Woolf, but he  is good at creating vivid characters and settings. He’s an easy and engaging read — which, I have learned  in my own writing efforts, is no small achievement. 

My Glorious Brothers came out in 1948, in the wake of the Holocaust and the same year as the creation of the state of Israel. There are echoes of both in Fast’s version of the Maccabeean rebellion — paeans to the beauty of the land, musings by a diplomat from the Roman Empire about how the Jews inspire universal loathing with their stubborn refusal to compromise their beliefs.

The narrator is Simon, an old man and the last of the five Maccabee brothers, reminiscing with love and sorrow about the early days of their uprising. The bare bones of the story come from the two Biblical books of the Maccabees, but like any good drash (commentary), Fast fills out those bones with the flesh of his imagination. 

Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, in Fast’s retelling, are honest farmers, sons of a wise and respected village leader. They are reluctantly thrust into guerrilla war by a series of brutal and horrendous acts by the Greek-influenced Syrian empire that was controlling Judea at the time. 

Fast does not even mention the rabbinic story of oil miraculously burning for eight days. 

In short, he takes a combination of the national-liberation and freedom-of-religion views of Chanukah. (See my last blog post.) Here’s an excerpt about the early days of the rebellion: 

Never had there been a thing like this in Israel before – or in any land, for these men were not mercenaries nor were they wild barbarians, in whom war and life are so intermixed that the one cannot be entangled from the other. No, these were simple farmers, gentle scholars whose devotion had been to the Law, the covenant, and the scrolls of our past. Some, indeed, knew well enough the use of our small, laminated bows and had shot partridges and rabbits with them, but even those had no experience with spears or swords…. 

Among the volunteers were six engineers, two of whom had lived among the Romans and taught us to make their catapults. Well do I remember how they marched into Ephraim, these strangers from far off Egypt, laden with gifts and dressed in beautiful garments that made our peasant homespun seem simple indeed. They brought a gift for the Maccabee: a banner of blue silk, and upon it a star of David, and sewn beneath the star: Judas Maccabeus. Who resists tyrants obeys God. And I remember too how they crowded forward to look at Judas – who had already become a legend, and the wonder and surprise of the volunteers when they discovered that Judas was as young as most of them and younger than some. 

Play based on My Glorious Brothers performed on Kibbutz Sarid, 1951

So what was the outcome of this high school reunion? Did the star quarterback maintain his physique, the homecoming queen her charisma?

I was surprised to find how much I still enjoyed My Glorious Brothers.  Fast sure can tell a story. Granted, there are parts that are a bit hokey such as a fictional love triangle between Simon, Judah and the “girl next door.” But he really gives you a feeling for what life was like in a hillside Judean village in the second century BCE, what might have been at stake for the Maccabees and their supporters, the odds they faced and the miraculous fight they waged. 

(His description of the Jewish bow fighters seeing elephants for the first time ever – elephants imported from India! carrying mercenaries and ready to trample them! – reminded me of the battle scene outside Gondor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Judah Maccabee as Legolas, anyone?) 

In short: five stars. Read it. Buy it/borrow it. Give it to any Jewish teenagers in your life.  

BUT….

How accurate is Fast’s depiction of those humble Maccabeean freedom fighters?

Next up:  Maccabees as Taliban?

My glorious Maccabees? – Part 1 of 3

December 1, 2010

What is the real story of Chanukah? 

Okay, we know it’s not the “Jewish Christmas.” And we know that historically it’s been a relatively minor event in the Jewish calendar – a poor step-sister to holidays such as Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Passover. 

(But a step-sister that — like Cinderella — has been dressed up in a ball gown and bangles to keep American Jewish kids from wilting with Santa envy!) 

That’s what Chanukah is not. But when we look at what it is, we find a choice of three different Chanukahs. They’re all nominally about the Maccabees, but each is really about something else:

The miraculous Chanukah. This is the version that most kids are taught in Hebrew school: We are celebrating God’s miracle of making a single day’s worth of oil burn for eight days after the Temple in Jerusalem was reclaimed from desecration. The hero of this story is God, and the message is that we should pray and thank God for magically, supernaturally, like Superman, flying in and saving the day.

The freedom-of-religion Chanukah. This version, I suspect, is the most common one among mainstream American Jews. We are celebrating the Maccabees’ successful battle for the right to worship as they chose. The protagonists of this story are Judah Maccabee and his compatriots – but the unspoken hero is American democracy and the freedom it gives us to live openly as Jews. Think:  Maccabees-as-card-carrying-ACLU-members.

The national liberation Chanukah. This is the story we told each other in Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist-Zionist youth group I belonged to as a teenager, and I suspect is the most common version in Israel. (Hey, Israeli readers, weigh in here!) This version celebrates the successful guerrilla struggle of Judean peasants against the vastly more powerful armies of Hellenized Syria. Here we have Maccabees-as-Viet-Cong, using their intimate knowledge of the land and their roots among the people to rout a foreign occupier. The implicit hero is… Zionism, and its successful effort to create an independent Jewish state. 

Which is your Chanukah? 

(And chag sameach! Although my husband argues that, since Chanukah is not really a major festival, one shouldn’t really say chag. I say pfooey. Chag sameach. )

Next up: A reader’s reunion with Howard Fast and My Glorious Brothers.