An identity rooted not in confrontation but expectation

December 4, 2010
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 4th December 2010

History itself has a history. What events seem to signify at the time is not how they are seen in the full perspective of hindsight. Take Hannukah, the festival we are in the midst of celebrating today.

Open the First and Second Books of Maccabees and you find yourself reading a story of military courage. Since the days of Alexander the Great, Israel had been under the rule of the Greeks, first under the Ptolemies based in Egypt, then a century later under the Seleucids who ruled from Syria.

One Seleucid leader, Antiochus IV, decided to force the pace of the hellenisation of the Jews, publicly banning the practices of Judaism. In its place he installed a statue of Zeus in the precincts of the Temple and had swine sacrificed to it. To the Jews it was the “abomination of desolation.”

Led by an elderly priest Mattityahu and his sons, a group of Jews known as the Maccabees rose in revolt. They won a victory, reconquered Jerusalem, cleansed the Temple and relit its candelabrum, the menorah. That remains the most visible symbol of the festival to this day. We light it in our homes for eight nights, adding an extra candle for each night.

That is how history seemed at the time: a story of armies, battles, and physical heroism.

But the Books of Maccabees never found their way into the Hebrew Bible. That is not how Jews came to remember the past.

The reason is that the victory was relatively short-lived. Jews won their confrontation with the Greeks, but they lost it with the Romans. A century later Pompey invaded Israel, which then came under Roman rule. When this too became oppressive, Jews twice rose in revolt, in the first and second centuries. Both were national disasters. After the first, the Temple was destroyed. After the second, Jerusalem was laid waste. Taken together, these were the worst Jewish catastrophe until the Holocaust.

But the Talmud tells a fascinating story. In the first century, shortly before the destruction of the Temple, a rabbi called Joshua ben Gamla organised the creation of a national network of schools, providing for the education of children throughout the country. It was the first system of universal education in history. The Talmud says that were it not for him “the Torah would have been forgotten in Israel.” There would have been no Judaism, no identity, and no Jews.

Joshua ben Gamla understood that the real battle Jews faced was not military at all. It was cultural and spiritual. Did they care enough about their faith to hand it on to their children? Did they believe that despite the great achievements of the Greeks in art, architecture, literature and philosophy, Jews still had a contribution to make to the world that was distinctively their own?

A new Jewish identity began to emerge, based not armies but on texts and teachers and houses of study. Jews became a people whose citadels were schools, whose heroes were teachers and whose passion was education and the life of the mind. And they survived. That was the remarkable thing.

The transformation of meaning over time is echoed in the very name of Hannukah itself. It means “dedication,” what the Maccabees did to the Temple after it had been cleansed. But the same word, in the form Hinnukh, also came to mean “education,” the dedication or consecration of the young as guardians of a sacred identity. The lights of Hannukah came to symbolise the holiness of the Jewish home.

The West today is fighting some difficult military battles. But there is also, as there was for Jews twenty-two centuries ago, a cultural and spiritual battle to be fought: not to impose our values on others, but to teach them to our children.
Do we still have a clear sense of who we are as a nation?  Do we have shared values?  Do we still believe in the sanctity of the family?  Do our lives have spiritual depth and moral beauty? Do we see ourselves as guardians of a tradition that we hand on with pride to our children? The future of the West may turn on our answers to those questions. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend an identity you need schools.