Hanukkah's Casual Violence

Delightful religious extremistHanukkah is coming. It’s time to tell stories about armed resistance against oppression. Children will read about the five brave Maccabee sons in picture books. Hebrew school students will enact dramatic battles in seasonal plays. Feminists and art lovers will view graphic paintings of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes. Musicians will sing about the wars won by God and human beings. We’ll experience a cathartic cycle of fear, excitement, anxiety, relief and joy.

And then we’ll light candles, play silly games, and eat greasy foods.

All my life, the casual militarism of Hanukkah has bothered me. Yes, I understand the stories recount a defensive war. I understand, as history teacher Dr. Meade taught us in middle school, that “neutrality is in the hands of the aggressor.” And that, if you are attacked, victory is better than defeat. And that, in a history that includes many defeats, we celebrate our victories with passion.

Still, I ask: Why is war such an important celebratory motif in our religion? Especially in a tradition that celebrates shalom, peace, and even claims in the priestly blessing that God’s face is peace?

War, says author Mark Juergensmeyer, plays an important social function for religious traditions. War helps create meaning, group belonging, and spiritual boundaries. When a society is mobilized for war, every person plays a role. Together, the group moves towards a goal, sharing meaning and direction. War thus reinforces the power of an in-group. It casts Others as shady figures, from the edges of the known or safe world. By defining allies and enemies, war brings to life religious concepts of pollution and purification, heresy and blasphemy.

But, I ask, can’t these social goals be met with shared positive action? Something like the “moral equivalent of war,” as philosopher William James proposed – a movement of national service that brings meaning, group solidarity, excitement and accomplishment?

Perhaps they can. But, says Juergensmeyer, religions also speak deeply to individual psychology. Even the most privileged human being cannot avoid experiences of chaos and death, whether personal, communal, or cultural. Religion helps tame these experiences, framing them with meaningful stories. Thus, stories like the Hanukkah, Purim and Passover stories symbolically teach that fear and violence are transitional stops on the way to peace and strength. Re-enactment provides comfort, catharsis, and stability.

Yet, I wonder, don’t some celebrators see the stories as more than symbolic? Don’t they instead learn instead to respond to stress with violence? Aren’t many religious people around the world literally enacting the violence depicted in their sacred stories?

Yes, yes, and yes, says Juergensmeyer. Sometimes, when people lose hope in real-world solutions, they find hope in cosmic stories of divinely-inspired struggle. And they try to bring those stories to life. About this process, there is much to learn. Which situations lead people to lose hope? How do interpretations of sacred stories shift? What do these same violent texts teach about ending conflict?

This Hanukkah, I will still tell the stories, read the books, watch the plays, discuss the art, and sing the songs. But I will do so with a different sense of their relevance. Clearly, Hanukkah holds lessons for urgent world questions today: hope, religious symbols, collective psychology, conflict and – possibly – its resolution.

Photo credit: Glenn Fleishman, Shutterstock Creative Commons.

This post originally appeared at Rabbis Without Borders at MyJewishLearning.

9 Comments
  1. Thank you, Reb Laura for helping us come to grips with a world that more than ever needs our small candles of hope and goodness and light.

  2. I love reading your blog so thank you for writing and sharing. This time, I even hold hope before opening this post…I thought that finally, someone would offer an alternative instead of all this violence. Yes, I agree that we, as adults, can approach it differently (as I do already for several years). However, I did not find yet an inspiring alternative way to bring this holiday to the young ones around us. Maybe they will come with better ideas soon 🙂

  3. I do wish I could think of a “moral equivalent to war” but imagine to figure out such a scheme against Naziism, or ISIS today. They only seem to change when defeated….militarily. I know I am not PC in this statement, but this level of evil is not responsive to dialogue, compromise, or even economic sanctions (that this is a start). That said, a national service that offers a military and civilian choice is really what a nation like ours needs.

  4. Reb Laura, I just finished watching The Imitation Game and some weeks ago I read a piece by Walter Wink entitled The Myth of Redemptive Violence. I am left wondering if our civilization will ever find an alternative to the violence that our society not only practices but rationalizes and justifies as a human trait, or an element of religion that is necessary. I believe Jurgensmeyer’s thesis does not prove the necessity of violence or even the practical element it serves, it is a producing of the evidence to fit the crime.

    On the one hand it is pleasant to recognize I share ideas with William James, without having read of them. On the other if William James couldn’t get a peace host implemented, what chance would I have?

    No wonder we have stories of the little hummingbird and other stories of spoons.

  5. Many years ago, the arguments you attribute to Juergensmeyer appeared in 1967 in a wonderful spoof document called “The Report From Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace”. Its likely author is Leonard Lewin. There is (I just found out!) a whole conspiracy-theory myth around it.

    I read it back then, and thought it was a good analysis of a nasty world. Nothing has changed my mind since.

    [I’d like to know the distinction between a “defensive war” and a “revolt”. Something that both sides would agree on, of course!]

  6. Hi, I desire to subscribe for this weblog to take newest updates, thus where can i do it
    please help.

    1. Corey, Please forgive my lateness in replying. There’s a button in the right sidebar for signing up. Thank you! – Laura

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