Monday, December 22, 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, And Hebrew School

We all know that we baby our kids nowadays. We give trophies to losers, steer kids away from true competition, protect them from things that end up giving them worse allergies or keep them from understanding the value of hard work. Is all that true or not? Who knows, I'm sure that people said that my generation had it too easy when we were kids. It's all relative, probably blown out of proportion. However, I can think of one pretty long-term damaging way in that we inexplicably protect our kids.

Hebrew School.

No, I'm not one of those people who hated their hebrew school experience so much that they think the overall concept is useless garbage. I also don't mean that hebrew school, in principle, damages kids. It's all those lies that we tell them in their education that hurts them, through a lessened understanding of their religion and their cultural history, and there's no better example than Chanukah, the holiday currently happening.

Here's the story of Chanukah, as told (to me and many others) in hebrew school: Antiochus, the Greek king of Syria, was ruling over Israel. He banned practice of the Jewish religion in order to make the Jews supplicant to Greece. Matthias and his sons rose up against Antiochus and won a long war. They took the Temple back in Jerusalem, but it had been desecrated. They wanted to re-sanctify it by cleaning it and re-lighting the everlasting light, but they only had enough oil for one day. After sending a runner for more oil, the original oil miraculously lasted for eight nights and the Temple was saved.

We Jews have heard that countless times and I'm sure many Gentiles have, as well. It's the only holiday with some serious historical credibility (Flavius). The problem is that this story sounds basically impossible. How could some townspeople from Modi'in legitimately defeat Alexander the Great's army, even a small part of it? Are we expected to just swallow a miracle with no questioning? The only thing that can explain it is God, right? Well, when you're talking about a story that old (late second century, BCE), there are a lot of ways for people to tweak it.

Here's what modern scholars agree was the real story: Alexander was conquering everywhere, including Israel and into Egypt. His Hellenic culture was so strong and so attractive that Jews began to follow it. As is still the case in Judaism, from Israel to Brooklyn, the ultra-observant Jews saw this assimilation as a threat to the religion's future. The leader of one of these ultra-observant groups, Matthias (Matisyahu in Hebrew), led his sons in a civil war against the Hellenized Jews. This group, the Maccabis, won the war and took back the capital in Jerusalem. The Temple had been desecrated, so they needed a ceremony to re-sanctify it. When Solomon built the original Temple, he opened it during Sukkot, leading to an eight day festival. The new rulers, the Hasmoneans, decided to honor that tradition with an eight day festival. They had plenty enough oil. Later, as they formed the post-Temple religion, the Rabbis decided that they didn't like a story that glorified only men, so they added the whole miracle thing to add God's presence.

So what gives? Why did I not learn that story until recently? We teach the kids the traditional Rabbinical stories, leaving out any potential disagreements with history. There doesn't seem to be a good reason for this. If nothing else, you can teach young kids the fun, simple stories and then teach older kids the more complex side in order to promote discussion and help them grow in the understanding of Judaism.

I'm not as familiar with non-Jewish religious schools, but I have to think the same sort of thing goes on. And that's one of my biggest problems with organized religion. If you're as confident in your views/"truths" as you seems to be, why not present potential arguments? Showing the challenges should only strengthen that faith as answers are found. Instead you end up with people blindly following whatever they're told, true or not, and nobody likes the thought of that.


Steve said...

Is that like how we were taught that there are 4 oceans on the earth only to learn recently that there are actually 5 oceans?

N said...

Oddly, I had only heard part of what is agreed to be the "real" story. Of course, perhaps I'm less condemning of adding in the miracle due to the fact that I grew up Christian, where, well. That kind of thing was done all the time.

(er. it's early, and I'm on narcotics. sorry for not making much sense.)