Hanukkah is, of course, the holiday of light, blah blah blah, we all know the story of the miracle of the oil. Except that I’m in a class on ancient texts and history, and having read the pseudepigraphal Maccabbean texts, it appears that the whole story is a little less rosy than I was taught in elementary Hebrew school—a lot of petty political squabbling, and later Jew-on-Jew violence, and other things that sort of muddy the political waters. Likewise, I have a friend studying American history, and he keeps pointing me to texts about the lead-up to the Civil War. Apparently, that conflict was similarly more complicated than slavery vs. freedom. And so on.
All of this has got me thinking about the validity and usefulness of political myths. Oh, I know they’re largely unavoidable, and that the process of propagandizing is how much of history has been relayed to us as a general public. But that doesn’t make it right, especially not in an era when news is nearly instantaneous and comes to us through various media, everywhere we go.
So what do we do with messy politics? What do we do with issues that cannot easily be reduced to the size and depth of a bumper sticker? And how on earth do we convince people that sound-bite politics just isn’t enough? The very honest and frankly difficult answer is: I don’t know. And it troubles me—deeply. Because the very issues that are often the least reducible—the Israel-Palestine conflict, abortion—are generally the ones I feel strongest about. And that other people feel strongly about, too. Strongly enough to kill and be killed, which makes dialogue pretty difficult. Insisting that everyone read Howard Sachar or Betty Friedan is not necessarily the most rational approach.
And, worse, these founding myths can help inspire great things. The first grader who finds inspiration to fight for freedom from, actually, either of the stories I mentioned has been done a great service through perhaps less than honest means. And maybe it’s legitimate to introduce these lesser truths—the facts behind the inspiring stories—in stages, so the larger message might make it across untainted. Problems arise when we lose people’s attention, or they finish school, or they’re less convinced by the difficult parts. Humans are messy, complicated, multi-faceted and capable of enormous depths of conviction. This makes any interaction about history or politics deeply fraught, and I’m endlessly grateful to those people who help teach me that there’s usually another layer.
So I’ve kindled the menorah every night this Hanukkah, and taught a few people about the holiday. And I haven’t done it because I had particular feelings about the politics of the Temple priesthood during the Maccabbean era, but because fighting for the right to religious self-expression is something that brings more light into the world. But it doesn’t make anything any simpler.