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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 15: Chappy Chanukkah

Today is the first day of Hanukkah. Gentle Readers may remember my ambivalence about the holiday—I am forced to admit that in the experience of American Jews, it is a major holiday, but I would prefer to deny that particular minhag and adhere to the older tradition that treats it as a minor holiday. Plus, I have many problems with the story itself, and with the various versions of it as it is taught and told. On the other hand, fried foods and gambling. So. Today is the first day of Hanukkah, and we are looking at the saying of R. Eliezar of Modim. In the translation of Rabbi Hertz:

R. Elazar of Modim said, he who profanes things sacred, and despises the festivals, and puts his fellow-man to shame in public, and makes void the covenant of Abraham our father, and makes the Torah bear a meaning other than what is right, such a one, even though knowledge of the Torah be his, has no share in the world to come.

There could be some issues with the translation. This is one of the ones where the Hebrew seems to bear a particularly heavy weight of connotation, and the translator must do what he can. I don’t think I want to look at word choice, today; I want to talk about Hanukkah.

Why Hanukkah? Well, that’s part of the weight of connotation. Rabbi Eleazar is from Modim. Who comes from Modim? The Maccabees come from Modim.

OK, do y’all know the Hanukkah story? Mattathias (or Matisyahu, and can I point out how interesting it is that we use the Greek version of his name?) was a very devout and strict Temple priest who, when the Temple was profaned and Temple rites were forbidden under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, returned to the Modi’in valley (or Modim, or Modaim, or whatever). Even there, however, the Greeks insisted on the locals participating in the pagan rites. He refused, and when another Jew acceded, Mattathias slew the man at the altar in the middle of the sacrifice, and shouted something quite like All who are with the Lord, follow me!.

He was followed into the wilderness by his sons, including the famous Judah “The Hammer”, or Judah Maccabee. He was also followed by a growing army of Jews who were called Maccabees after their military leader. There was an insurgency, violence, terror, miracles, guerrilla warfare in the towns, forced conversions, wholesale slaughter, and finally—one might say miraculously, particularly if you believe that bit about the white stallion—the liberation of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple. Hanukkah is the observance of the rededication of the Temple, which (notionally) occurred on 25 Kislev, and thus the remembrance of the revolt against the Hellenizers and the Hellenized.

Now. That was all three hundred years or so before the Eliezar of this verse. But by identifying him by his hometown (rather than by his father or some attribute such as righteousness or wisdom), the verse calls to mind the Maccabees and the revolt. And, by bringing to mind that revolt, that celebrated and observed revolt, it brings to mind the contemporary revolt of Bar Kochba, who had Eliezar killed (presumably after he said that stuff) and the contemporary questions of interaction with the Western powers and Western ideas.

So, keeping that in mind, who is the one that Eliezar of Modin says has no place in the world to come? It is the Hellenizer/Romanizer; the one who says that it is all right to eat trayf, who works on the holidays because the goyim are working on the holidays, the one who says that the Torah is compatible with the modern world.

In other words, me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.