Saturday, 20 December 2008

Mis-Nagid On Chanuka

Today, there are many profound Jewish sceptic blogs.

A few years ago, there were even more. Mis-nagid is a legend. The blog may be gone and his posts deleted, but his spirit and name lives on. This is my tribute to the legend: a post Mis-Nagid's I managed to find after much searching on the internet. I found it 8 months ago and have kept it ever since to post on Chanuka. Chanuka is all but here. Now settle down and hear the words of the profound.

Thus spoke Mis-nagid:

Frum Fantasy or How a Legend Spawned an Industry

The frum world is thoroughly suffused with fantasy and ignorance. Frum people know pathetically little about their own history and practices, and what they do know is usually wrong. In general, frum institutions never teach any history at all, or at least nothing that deserves the name. Most yeshiva bochurim have no idea what was going on in the world at the same time as any Jewish event. All "history" is seen through the gauze of fantasy. The frum view of the history of world revolves around Jews and includes lots of myths, which makes for a witch's brew that has little to do with real history.

The root cause of this lack of rigor in understanding the past is the need for ignorance. After all, if you ask "What was going on in the rest of the world during Noach's Great Flood?" you may be surprised to find out that great (undisturbed) civilizations in Egypt and China were already writing stuff down, and never mentioned any flood. As the frum dogmas are not grounded in reality, so too the history must be kept floating above the ground, never attached to anything of substance, lest it come tumbling down to earth.

Chanukah, one of the few Jewish holidays based on a true historical event, is, ironically, no exception to this. Grab a frum person and quiz him or her: In what year was Chanukah? Who was Antiochus? Who were the Yevonim? Who were the Chasmonoyim? How long did the war last? You'll get the most pathetic answers (if you get any), because frum people have no sense of history. Shoot, most frum people don't know what the word "frum" means, or where it comes from! [*]

There is one aspect of frum Chanukah that truly brings this sense of ahistory into sharp relief. Case in point: the Bais Yosef's Kasha. To those of you lucky enough to be uninitiated in the frum cult, this peculiar obsession of frum Chanukah takes the form of a question. The Bais Yosef asked, "If the oil could have lasted for one day, but lasted for eight, only seven of them can be termed miracles. So why celebrate eight (rather than seven) days?"

This "difficulty" occupies a special place in the frum universe; it's a "true" classic. Gallons of ink were poured to answer this stupid question. Virtually every frum commentator since his time has had a crack at it. There's even a very large sefer consisting of nothing but answers to this one question. However, every single one of those answers is wrong -- completely, utterly, and totally wrong.

Before I get to the correct answer, let's understand why they're wrong. Don't worry, I don't have to refute them all, one at a time. The reason they're off-base is simple: it's a legend. The story of the miraculous oil was made up approximately six hundred years after the events of Chanukah. Of course the rabbinical legend has inconsistencies -- it's fiction. There's no point in trying to "fix" them. It's like reading Curious George and trying to explain how so few balloons could lift a monkey of George's heft.

Now, to the real answer to the Bais Yosef's Kasha.

Due to their aforementioned lack of history sense, most frum people have no idea that there are books written from the era of the Maccabees. Nor do they know that these books make no mention of any miracles. Ask a frum person what is says in the two[**] Books of Maccabees, and they'll say "Books of Maccabees?" I'll not get into why those books are invisible from the frum world, but I'll note one piece of irony. Virtually every frum child knows the Chanukah story of Channah and her seven sons. Where's the story from? The Book of Maccabees 2.

Were you to read the actual history of Chanukah, when you get to the part about the rededication [chanukah] of the Temple, you'd find the following:

10:5 Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the five and twentieth day of the same month, which is Casleu [Kislev].
10:6 And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles [Sukkot], when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts.
10:7 Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also [lulavim, hadassos, aravos], and sang psalms [Hallel] unto him that had given them good success in cleansing his place.
10:8 They ordained also by a common statute and decree, That every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews.

That's right, the very first Chanukah was a delayed Sukkot. Sukkot traditionally required going to the Temple, but on the correct date for Sukkot, the Temple was still under Seleucid control, so it was not celebrated properly. The Maccabees cleverly scheduled the Temple's grand reopening on the anniversary of its sacking, and celebrated Sukkot like it's supposed to be. It was especially poignant due to the fact that the transient and ephemeral living embodied in the story of Sukkot was so resonant with them, having just spent so long hiding in mountains and caves.

Furthermore, the book opens with a letter to the Jews in Alexandria, telling them to celebrate this new holiday:

1:9 And now see that ye keep the feast of tabernacles [Sukkot] in the month Casleu [Kislev].

That is the correct answer to the Bais Yosef's Kasha. The reason Chanukah is eight days (instead of seven) is because it was a delayed Sukkot, which has eight days. It was always eight days, and the rabbis made their legend match the extant practice, leading to the slight inconsistency noted by the Bais Yosef.

Before I close this post, I'd like to add a piece of speculation. The Mishna nevers discusses Chanukah, even going so far as to give a grave warning against reading the Books of Maccabees (Sanhedrin 10:1). In the only Gemara to discuss Chanukah, history gets three lines, while ritual minutaie get more than three pages. However, there is one interesting link in this rabbinified version of Chanukah that may hint at their knowledge of its true origins.

In the discourse on how to light the Chanukah candles, two opinions are proffered. One says to start with one candle on the first night and add one each night, until you are lighting eight on the final night. The other says to start with eight and remove one each night. Where it gets interesting is the reason offered for the latter position. The justification given is that the candles represent "parei hechag," the bulls of the holiday. By this he means the bulls offered on Sukkot. As recounted in the Torah, those bulls were offered in decreasing number each successive day.

The commentators struggle to explain why that Sukkot practice is relevant to Chanukah lights. Some of them are almost amusing in their tortured logic. I'd like to offer a possibility; that this could be a partial remnant of the earlier explanations for the custom of the Chanukah lights.

email me: [mis-nagid_AT_hush_DOT_com]

[*] It's a Yiddishization of the German "fromm," meaning pious. Admit it, you didn't know that.
[**] The other Books of Maccabee aren't about Chanukah, and are somewhat misnamed

Relations with Relations

Life is hard. In particular, choices we make in life are hard. It's difficult to know precisely which choice will elicit which reaction from whom.

In fact, if Life were a video game, Choice would be the evil monsters you have to kill along the way, with some sort of Choice Big Boss at the of it, who you had to defeat using nothing but your words, whilst it threw rocket propelled grenades at you. A difficult task indeed.

Obviously, real life is nothing like a video game. There's no answer book, no walkthrough, no Dragons of Eternity guarding the Mountain of Doom that we have to defeat, afterwhich our overall purpose is revealed. We have to find our own purpose in life, and be happy with it.

No-one makes their choices in a vacuum, because we're all connected to people somehow. Therefore a sceptic being sceptical about religion may very well have the effect of upsetting said sceptic's religious, Ultra-Orthodox family. You'll notice I didn't say the sceptic has a choice in whether or not they're sceptical: I think scepticism is something thrust on people, rather than an actual choice we make.

The choice comes in what we do with that scepticism. We have to decide to live life and we either live it in line with religion or we don't. There's no halfway house: you're either going to turn on the computer on the Sabbath, or decide not to because it's the Sabbath. There are similar choices for sceptics in other religions to make like this. In other words, life isn't agnostic. Life is one way or the other. No-one can rightfully be said to teeter on the brink of Orthodoxy and Atheism, though this is what the tag-line of my blog claims, because there's simply no halfway house to teeter in. You can be an atheist and doubt you're right, but you're still atheist until you realign your values and subsaquently your actions: if there's no change in actions, I'd very much doubt there has been an actual change in values; people act on the values they hold.

I believe this to be true in a general sense. Where it gets skewed is where there are other people concerned. Say, your family. Though my values have changed compared to when I was growing up, I choose not to act out on all of them whilst I still live at home, because I don't want to offend my parents. Therefore, when at home I keep kosher and don't ever admit to them I don't keep kosher out of the home, or in any way lead a life which isn't in line with Orthodox Judaism.

Obviously, they're not silly and because they know my views and know that I have a non-Jewish, atheist girlfriend, can guess that not keeping kosher is the least of my transgressions. But this is something which hasn't really been spoken about until today.

A relative decided to confront me about my beliefs and lifestyle around the Shabbat table at lunch time, something I didn't exactly appreciate. I didn't appreciate it because apart from it being inapropriate to deny god at the table of any Orthodox Jewish family, I'm trying to protect everyone from my views, especially my younger sibling.

I'm not going to be convincing anyone in my house that god doesn't exist, neither do I seek to. But I do know that arguing for atheism will cause anguish and pain. To explain why I have a non-Jewish girlfriend means I have to outrightly deny all that which my family hold dear, out loud.

True, it's something I've done bit by bit through the past year.
True, the very fact that I have a girlfriend who isn't Jewish is already a denial of every Jewish value ever established.

But until now, there was some sort of tacit agreement that life is what it is and I'm making different choices to those my parents made. Now, however, I'm being forced to reveal all my cards on the table in one go. I feel that doing so would irrevocably damage the relationship I have with my family.

But why do I have a non-Jewish girlfriend?
Because I don't believe there's any inherent difference between a Jew and non-Jew, so to justify the fact that she isn't Jewish isn't really meaningful to me beyond the understanding that my family are demanding an explanation. Because I don't want to bring up my children in any sort of religious life-style. Because I want to be an all-in atheist and it's unlikely a non-Jewish atheist girl from a secular home is going to be reverting back to religion any time soon, something which can't be said from a tight-knit community of Jews.

Why this particular girl?
Because I love her and she's a rare catch. Because she shares my values and opinions on life. Because, in a nutshell, I feel we can have a good future together.

I love my family dearly, neither do I seek to deny the Jewish heritage of which I'm very proud. In an ideal world, I could have my family and heritage, and still get involved with this girl without anyone minding. But this doesn't seem to be a very realistic aspiration.

It's ever so difficult to have to choose between the girl I love and my family who I love. But this is the position I'm being pushed into from all sides, explicitly or implicitly, and it is quite pressuring.

I always knew there'd be a time when it became impossible for me to live at home, if I wanted to act on my values. I wonder if that time is now. I wonder if leaving the home is the right choice: some distance, so as not to flaunt my lifestyle, may be better than the daily reminder or heresy that I seem to have become.

Indeed, choices are hard.