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Responding to Hitchens on Chanukah

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Rabbi Michael Lerner       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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In the typical fashion that have made Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins into heroes among those who hate (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not) the religions of the world, we get below Hitchens' distortions endorsed by Dawkins. The approach is typical: a religious view is mis-described and distorted, then ridiculedall made possible by quoting out of context and taking the least sophisticated possible interpretations of the tradition. Unlike Hitchens and fellow traveler Dawkins, I believe in intellectual honesty, and hence am first presenting a link to the entirety of Hitchens attack, so you can read it in context, then what I wrote that his misrepresents, then my comments. Then try to figure out why anyone with a serious intellectual curiosity would give a moment's attention to this clown. Both Hitchens and Dawkins take the most primitive versions of religion, seemingly unaware of the variants of religion that have evolved through the ages. It's kind of like denouncing "democracy" and using as proof texts the presidency of George W. Bush. Sure, it's real and was produced by a democratic system (well, not fully democratic), but showing its barbarity does not lead anyone with sophistication to reason in the Hitchens/Dawkins style: "this destructive behavior emerged in a democratic system, therefore democracy is worthless." Yes that is precisely the form of argument underlying most of Hitchens/Dawkins. But look at how they'd howl if we used the same form of argument against atheism and said: "Hitler and Stalin were atheists, they established political systems that persecuted the established religions of their societies, and those societies then killed tens of millions of innocents, therefore atheism produces genocide." The argument is ridiculous for the same reason that Hitchens/Dawkins are ridiculous. But being ridiculous is only the beginning. Look to see how dishonest or at least intellectually sloppy Hitchens becomes in an article that Dawkins then publishes on his website with praise. Please see the entire article, Bah, Hanukkah, here:

Now, lets look at what Rabbi Lerner actually said about Chanukah and the rise of Greek forms of rationality and culture:

Though the holiday celebrated by lighting candles for 8 nights recalls the victory of the guerrilla struggle led by the Maccabees against the Syrian branch of the Greek empire, and the subsequent re-dedication (Chaunkah in Hebrew) of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., there was a more difficult struggle which took place (and in some dimensions still rages) within the Jewish people between those who hoped for a triumph of a spiritual vision of the world embedded (as it turned out, quite imperfectly) in the Maccabbees and a cynical realism that had become the common sense of the merchants and priests who dominated the more cosmopolitan arena of Jerusalem.

The cynical realists in Judea, among them many of the priests charged with preserving the Temple, argued that Greek power was overwhelming and that it made far greater sense to accommodate to it than to resist. The Greek globalizers promised advances in science and technology that could benefit international trade and enrich the local merchants who sided with them, even though the taxes that accompanied their rule impoverished the Jewish peasants who worked the land and eked out a subsistence living. Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theatre of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

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To the Maccabbees, the guerrilla band that they assembled to fight the Greek Empire and its Seleucid dynasty in Syria, and to many of the Jewish supporters of that struggle, the issue of Greek militarism, social injustice and oppression were far more salient than the accomplishments of Greek high culture. Whatever might be the value of Athenian democracy, the reality that it exported to the world through Alexander and his successors was oppressive and exploitative.

The "oldtime religion" that the Maccabbees fought to preserve had revolutionary elements in it that went far beyond the Greeks in articulating a liberatory vision: not only in the somewhat abstract demand to "love your neighbor as yourself," "love the stranger," and pursue justice and peace, but also concretely in Torah prescriptions to abolish all debts every seven years, allow the land to lie fallow every seven years, refrain from all work and activities connected to control over the earth once a week on Sabbath, redistribute the land every fifty years (the Jubilee) back to its original equal distribution.

The identification with the oppressed, enshrined in Judaism in its insistence that Jews were derived from slaves who had been liberated, and in its focus on retelling the story of being oppressed that was central to the Torah, seemed atavistic and naive to the more educated and enlightened Jewish urban dwellers, who pointed to the reactionary tribalistic elements of Torah and sided with the Greeks when they declared circumcision and study of Torah illegal and banned the observance of the Sabbath.

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The miracle of Chanukah is that so many people were able to resist the overwhelming "reality" imposed by the imperialists and to stay loyal to a vision of a world based on generosity, love of stranger, and loyalty to an invisible God who promised that life could be based on justice and peace. It was these "little guys," the powerless, who managed to sustain a vision of hope that inspired them to fight against overwhelming odds, against the power of technology and science organized in the service of domination, and despite the fact that they were dismissed as terrorists and fundamentalist crazies. When this kind of energy, what religious people call "the Spirit of God," becomes ingredient in the consciousness of ordinary people, miracles ensue.

It is this same radical hope, whether rooted in religion or secularist belief systems, that remains the foundation for all who continue to struggle for a world of peace and social justice at a time when the champions of war and injustice dominate the political and economic institutions of our own society, often with the assistance of their contemporary cheerleading religious leaders. It is that radical hope that is celebrated this Chanukah by those Jews who have not yet joined the contemporary Hellenists.

Rabbi Lerner's commentary:

1. If you read the original article, you will see that I do not say anything that could justify Hitchens claim that I said "away with all that" referring to rational thinking or Greek culture. What I did say was that the Maccabbees perceived that culture as part of the overall enterprise of Greek imperialism. "To the Maccabees, the issue of Greek militarism, social injustice and oppression were far more salient than the accomplishments of Greek high culture. Whatever might be the value of Athenian democracy, the reality that it exported to the world through Alexander and his successors was oppressive and exploitative." The same may help us understand (not agree with) the rejection of Western culture by some fundamentalist groups today, seeing that culture as fundamentally linked to Western imperialism. Understanding that gives us a better way not to apologize for fundamentalism but to challenge it effectively.

Let me explain. The imperialists set a choice for peoples that they conquer: If you want our science, literature, and culture (all things that I value, and many others should too), then you must embrace our political, economic and cultural domination over you. The fundamentalists respond by saying: no, I don't want your economic, political or cultural domination, and anyone who wants true freedom and an opportunity to hold on to what is good in the religious traditions that we've developed must reject anything that smacks of Western versions of rationality, science, literature and culture.

But to those of us who are spiritual progressives, this choice is a false one imposed by two contending sides each of which has something to offer and each of which has much that is distorted.

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As I describe in my books The Politics of Meaning (1996), Spirit Matters (2000) and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country From the Religious Right (2006), a spiritual progressive embraces science and rationality, though it also embraces forms of rationality that have been developed by women and that integrate aspects of emotional, spiritual, and ecological literacy into our conceptions of rationality (all of which are increasingly now being explored by social science and psychology). But a spiritual progressive also embraces "A new bottom line" in which institutions, social practices, corporations, government policies and even our own behavior are judged "efficient, rational or productive" not only to the extent that they maximize money or power (the Old Bottom Line), but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacities to experience others as embodiments of the sacred and enhance our capacities to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of all being. This is a conception of rationality and productivity and efficiency that does not derive from the wisdom of Athens or Rome and their powerful armies, but from Jerusalem (though it is shared by many of the other wisdom traditions of the world).

So trying to suggest that in embracing some aspects of what the Macabees were trying to accomplish one must thereby be committed to rejecting all that is good in the West is an outright distortion, and reflects either intellectual sloppiness or a willful desire to distort. It is this same approach that appears over and over again in the tirades of Hitchens and, to a lesser but nevertheless significant extent, in the writings on God of Dawkins.

[By the way, you might also want to read an updated version of my analysis of the meaning of Chanukah in the current issue of Tikkun magazine, part of which you can find at]

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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and national chair of the Tikkun Community/ Network of Spiritual Progressives. People are invited to subscribe to Tikkun magazine or join the interfaith organization the Network of Spiritual Progressives-- "both of which can be done by (more...)

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