Hanukkah: don’t get me started!

As a child, here’s how I was taught: the evil Syrian king, Antiochus, forced the poor, innocent Jews to pray to a statue of the king in their holy Jerusalem Temple along with other bad rules to keep them from living a good Jewish life. Mattathias Maccabee and his heroic son Judas, practically by themselves, defeated the large armies of the evil king. The next day, when they returned from the war, there was only enough oil to light the holy lamp in the temple for one day. They knew it would take eight days to get a new supply. A miracle occurred: the holy lamp stayed lit for eight days! Hooray. The end. Now lets sing some songs, eat some potato pancakes (latkes), and play a spin-the-top game (dreidl/sivivon) to win chocolate money (gelt). Here’s a little present for the kids each night you light the next candle (left to right in increasing numbers); don’t even look at those other kids getting presents on December 25th. That’s their holiday. . .

To stay positive: latkes are delicious (I prefer mine with granny smith applesauce, not sour cream), dreidl is fun (who doesn’t enjoy a good casino night), my family did celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas (yay more presents) and a sharing celebration of lights during a dark time of year and a celebration of religious self-determination are good things. But. . .

There was no “Syrian king Antiochus.” Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the Seleucid Empire was one of the divisions of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire – notice how I didn’t say Greek or Syrian here) had been fighting against the Seleucid’s perpetual rival, the Ptolemy brothers of Egypt (the Ptolemaic Empire was another division of Alexander’s empire) around 170 BCE (notice I included a date – heaven forbid giving us kids context). While the emperors were distracted, there was a small civil war going on in the Judean province of the Seleucid Empire: a few families were vying for the job of Temple High Priest, with its political and financial privileges. The High Priest Menelaus, appointed by Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was losing. The Emperor left his perpetual war in order to come to Jerusalem and reinforce his choice against the usurper, Jason. Both sides were “upper class;” they and much of the “middle class” (if you could call it that) were assimilated – they spoke the Greek language, dressed in Greek fashion, went to Greek theater (I wonder if Oedipus Rex or Medea were playing that season), and attended Greek wrestling at the gymnasium (“Goldie, I noticed your grandson spends a lot of time at the wrestling expositions and even more time at his theater job. How is he going to meet a nice Jewish girl? Well, Yenta, let’s talk about same-sex marriage. . .”).

When the Emperor reinstalled Menelaus, he did outlaw Jewish rites (like circumcision and Torah study) and ordered polytheistic idolatry (pray to Zeus and the Imperial statues). Similar to today, assimilated folks would probably not worry too much about that: they had secular jobs and secular social lives. The “lower class,” however, were much more right-wing in their religious orientation. Mattathias Maccabee was a conservative, small-town traditionalist. Angry that the deep-state was taking away his right to impose his strict religious beliefs on his neighbors, he murdered a few local assimilationists and rallied his family and supporters to make Judea great again, using their best para-military weaponry and propaganda tactics against these Seleucid immigrants. Does any of this sound familiar?

The Maccabee insurrection lasted about 7 years (167-160 BCE) with both sides winning and losing various battles. While there was a rededication of the Second Temple (not the First Temple built by Solomon but the Second Temple built around 500 BCE after the Judeans were allowed to return from Babylon by the new Persian Empire), the descendents of the Maccabee traditionalists (all 5 of Mattathias’ sons died violent deaths) had politically aligned themselves with the growing Roman Republic and rapidly encouraged the same assimilationist culture against which they originally fought. Hmmmm. In their victory, the newly formed Hasmonean dynasty expanded their land holdings, forced their culture on their neighbors (including the province of Idumea where a young fellow named Herod grew up in the governor’s mansion), and created their own political and culture wars, resulting in various movements: Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees.

So, where did the whole “miracle of the lights” come from? The spiritual heirs to the Pharisees, the Rabbis who compiled the Talmud in the first centuries of the Roman Imperial era, clearly were embarrassed by an outdated celebration of military victory – particularly in light of Roman oppression. Alternatively, a celebration of lights during the dark time of the year with its emphasis on deity-based miracles certainly sets up a better theme. Now, as most of this is my opinion, I can understand why many of these details were not explained to five and six year olds in their suburban Jewish community centers and religious schools of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. However, some of the details are important: secular celebration, esoteric emphasis on light in the darkness, cultural and political self-determination are all fabulous themes. . .but not quite as delicious as home-made potato pancakes. Mmmmm. Happy Hanukkah.

Sometimes you never know…

There are times in my career as a Contemporary Vitki that things have gone astray. I set my intentions and go to town only to be derailed by the multiverse. My strongest held intentions are just not right for the situation at hand. The multiverse will send me to another realm. Or bring about an entirety different ending than what I had in mind. What do I do when this occurs? I get mad as hell! I curse and stomp and generally act the fool. Then I finally calm down. And I look at things more reasonably and I of course realize that what came about is actually better than I intended! The multiverse has a much better view of the big picture and can work to do what really needs to be done. I forget that although I am a powerful contemporary Vitki I am after all only human as well. Sigh. I hate when my shortcomings rear their ugly heads and talk out. But the bottom line is that with my experience I have learned to trust the multiverse. I know it’s truly got my back. I can stop freaking out and relax. So I do. Take my word for it. Sometimes when things go differently than you intended it’s a good thing. So relax. Go with it. The multiverse knows a thing or two. Sometimes it works perfectly as you intended. But sometimes. Sometimes. Sometimes you never know.

What do you do with a drunken Noah?

So, the flood which destroyed all of humanity was over and things became all quiet. What next? Noah – he planted a vineyard and then got drunk. Huh? First, why a vineyard? Why not an olive garden (with or without unlimited salad & breadsticks)? We know that little dove brought back an olive branch as evidence of dry land. What about wheat or barley or rice or citrus fruits? Perhaps, he farmed those other crops out to his sons because he knew what a vineyard would bring in a couple of years: a nice original vintage Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon!

Why did Noah drink to the point of passing out drunk? Perhaps as a novice drinker, he had a very low tolerance. With each cup, he liked the joyful effect and became more giddy and silly and dizzy and warmer and warmer, taking off his garments until – boom – he fell on the floor unconscious. Perhaps he intuited that increasing inebriation would take away the memory of the near-destruction of humanity (despite how violent or noisy they were). It must have been pretty traumatic. Perhaps he attempted a return to a time of human lack-of-knowledge of good and evil via the spirits (https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/3475426/jewish/Why-Noah-Planted-a-Vineyard-and-Got-Drunk.htm). Whatever the reason, his use of alcohol made his life somewhat unmanageable. How?

When Noah was passed out naked, his “small” son Ham “saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers…” Later, when Noah woke up, he cursed Ham’s fourth son Canaan to be a slave to his brethren. Hold up here! So your adult child saw you naked. . .big deal. Well – rabbis going back to the first centuries of the current era tried to explain what pissed Noah off. Looking at the Hebrew words used, they said Ham did more than “see” his father – but actually either castrated or sodomized him (https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.70a?lang=bi) perhaps in a domination move or to prevent Noah from fathering younger siblings. I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but the simple act of looking disrespectfully at a vulnerable person can be harmful and problematic. And Noah probably had quite a hangover, resulting in increased irritability to the point of cursing out his grandson (he couldn’t curse Ham since all the former occupants of the Ark were blessed by Elohim/Gods). Or perhaps the Yahwist and Priestly redactors were trying to create an ex post facto justification for the oppression of indigenous Canaanites.

No matter what the intention – the behavior resulted in some unpleasant family consequences: Noah engaged in a mind-altering activity which cut him off from his higher power and resulted in some insanity, interpersonal pain and intergenerational distress. It’s an ancient lesson: trust your high power as you understand it and make amends to those you have harmed.

Does this story sound familiar?

The Epic of Atrahasis was written in Assyria during the 17th century BCE. Here’s a part of it:

Atrahasis made ready to speak, and said to his lord:
“Make me know the meaning of the dream. let me know, that I may look out for its consequence.”

Enki made ready to speak, and said to his servant: “You might say, ‘Am I to be looking out while in the bedroom? Do you pay attention to message that I speak for your‘Wall, listen to me! Reed wall, pay attention to all my words!

Flee the house, build a boat, forsake possessions, and save life...

The boat which you build… be equal …Roof her over like the Apsu so that the sun shall not see inside her. Let her be roofed over fore and aft. The gear should be very strong, the pitch should be firm, and so give the boat strength. I will shower down upon you later. . .a windfall of birds, a spate of fishes…
He opened the water clock and filled it, he told it of the coming of the seven-day deluge…

Atrahasis received the command. He assembled the Elders at his gate. Atrahasis made ready to speak, and said to the Elders: “My god does not agree with your god, Enki and Enlil are constantly angry with each other. They have expelled me from the land. Since I have always reverenced Enki, he told me this. I can not live in your city, nor can I set my feet on the earth of Enlil. I will dwell with my god in the depths. This he told me: …”

The carpenter carried his axe, the reedworker carried his stone, the rich man carried the pitch, the poor man brought the materials needed. . .Bringing …whatever he had …Pure animals he slaughtered, cattle …Fat animals he killed. Sheep …he choose and and brought on board. An abundance of birds flying in the heavens,the cattle and the … of the cattle god, the creatures of the steppe, … he brought on board…he invited his people… to a feast … his family was brought on board. While one was eating an another was drinking, he went in and out; he could not sit, could not kneel, for his heart was broken, he was retching gall. . .

He brought pitch to seal his door. By the time he had bolted his door, Adad was roaring in the clouds. The winds were furious as he set forth,… He cut the mooring rope and released the boat…Anzu rent the sky with his talons, …and broke its clamor like a pot. the flood came forth. Its power came upon the peoples like a battle, one person did not see another, they could not recognize each other in the catastrophe…The deluge belowed like a bull, the wind resounded like a screaming eagle. The darkness was dense, the sun was gone …,

[Epilogue: The gods find themselves hungry because there are no farmers left and sacrifices are no longer brought. When they discover that Atrahasis has survived, they make a plan to make sure that the noise (of overpopulation which was the reason for the flood) will remain within limits: they invent childbirth, infant mortality, and celibacy.] https://www.livius.org/articles/misc/great-flood/flood3_t-arahasis/

Sound familiar? Some may say: “why, this sounds quite similar to a portion of the 13th century BCE Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh!” That’s true.

And, of course, there’s the 6th century BCE Yahwist story about a fellow named Noah. . .none of these stories come as a surprise to me, considering that the writers of the original epics lived in a fertile-crescent river valley and probably experienced a few floods from time to time. . . either that or it was just a coincidence. . .hmmm.

God or Gods of creation

How many family and friends were introduced to the first line of Genesis (called Bereishit in Hebrew): “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth…” (King James Version) or “God created the heavens and the earth…” (New International Version) or some similar translation. However, something fun happens if you know a little Hebrew. Whoever wrote the first line in the original Hebrew, started it this way: “In the beginning, Gods created the heavens and the earth. . .” Gods? Yes, Gods. The person who wrote this clearly used the word: Elohim (אֱלֹהִ֑ים). That -im ending in Hebrew indicates plural. More than one. Gods. Line after line in the first chapter go like this: “And Gods said” this; “And Gods created” that; “And Gods blessed” the other thing; and my favorite, “in the image of Gods were created man AND woman.” Elohim were not sexist in this first creation story, thank Gods. Elohim also created the weekend – everyone needs a day off. Blessed be those Elohim !

These Gods continued their busy creating through the first chapter of Genesis/Bereishit and onward for four lines into chapter two of Genesis/Bereishit. Then something odd happened. In line five, the unpronounceable name YHVH (יִֽהְיֶ֣ה) showed up as the creator God. YHVH created man out of the dust. Wait a second – what happened to the man and woman that Elohim created in the first chapter? YHVH planted a garden with some trees between some rivers, then created some animals and birds for the man to name (what happened to the birds and animals created by Elohim in the first chapter?), and took a bone from the man’s side to create a woman, and later on got pissed at the woman and the man for munching on an apple. Clearly YHVH was one entity, not a plural number of entities. YHVH was also pretty angry (as we learn in later stories) and definitely not into equality of the sexes.

A rabbi who I know once explained it like this: when the Hebrews were compiling these stories twenty-five hundredish centuries or so ago, they recalled their oldest nomadic traditions when they worshipped many Gods from the Semitic culture: Baal, Asherah, Astarte, and El (the singular form of Elohim) among others. As the nomads settled into a kingdom, the national God, YHVH, began taking precedence; however, the worship of YHVH did not preclude the worship of the older Gods. After the exile to Babylon, the religious authorities began to further emphasize a monotheistic worship of YHVH; but those sweet, non-sexist Elohim remained in their tribal consciousness. May they never be forgotten.