The last day of Hanukkah happened to fall on Christmas Eve this year, and while I am not one to read meaning into a coincidence of the calendar, it does invite us to reflect on the obvious but usually overlooked point of convergence between Judaism and Christianity, so far apart because, like Mexico and the United States, so close.
Liberty is that meeting place. You can disagree on what political stance to take, ranging from submission to tyranny to resistance. Jews and Christians have been all over the spectrum, politically. Hanukkah celebrates the Almighty’s might, which he demonstrated in the miracle of the lights. It occurs, however, in the context of the Maccabee rebellion against Hellenistic repression. It was a repression that was strikingly, or should I say eerily, familiar. Presenting itself as universalist, tolerant, open, Hellenistic culture (the fusion of Macedonian, Greek, and Levantine cultures in the aftermath of Alexander’s epic conquests), for all its excitement and what I suppose we can call (anachronistically) its hip cosmopolitanism, there was an underlying oppressiveness that we would recognize today as (to use another anachronism) political correctness. In this atmosphere, the Jews were the dead-white-males of the day.
Lest we think that the denigration of a traditional culture, or if you want a culture’s traditions, is mainly a matter of passing opinion and fashion, the relevant history is a sobering corrective. The “Jewish question” of the time turned into a campaign to eradicate Judaism. Under Antiochus (Second Century B.C.), the Hellenizing Syrian ruling dynasty outlawed Judaism, desecrated and wrecked the Temple, massacred Jerusalem’s Jews. The revolt of Matthias and his five sons, including the one who became known as the Hammer (Judah Ha-Makabi), was a fight for national and spiritual survival, ultimately rooted in the covenant with God.
Like Passover, Hanukkah emphasizes national liberation. The individual choice for freedom in Judaism finds its outlets in study, at least it always seemed to me. The extremely high value placed on study must be given credit for the explosive creativity in all fields that marked Jewish emancipation from the ghettos of Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, Israel, combining national liberation with an entrepreneurial culture founded in the gray matter of its citizens not the natural resources in its soil, is the prototype of the free society. This is the point made by George Gilder in his brilliant The Israel Test, and it suggests one of the reasons for Israel’s failure to win popularity contests in fashionable circles such as the club known as “the international community.”
It is also the reason Christianity is the carrier of “scandal.” The scandal of Christianity lies in its insistence that the individual soul is a sacred gift. Gospel singers rejoice in being in the palm of His hand. No human hand can take away a Christian’s freedom, although, of course, it can enslave him and take away his life. This mysterious paradox has to be at the center of Christianity’s enduring resilience and appeal.
The question today is whether Judaism and Christianity can and will fight for their material survival in a hostile world. After about two millennia of lying low on the political front — the rabbis insisted (as they still do) that Jews have an obligation to respect the laws of whatever nation they inhabit — the Jewish national liberation movement surprised the world — and itself — by freeing its home territory. For the past 60 years the reborn state of Israel has had to defend itself on the battlefield; in this same period, Christianity has lost ground. It is practically gone from the Middle East, its cradle; in large swathes of Europe it is in full retreat. It remains a major force in the United States, but rich and politically powerful sections of the country are against it.
Will Christianity fight? Its position is not as clear-cut as Judaism’s. About 10 million Jews are in direct physical danger in the land of Israel; they must fight. Christians do not yet face this sort of threat.
Christianity does not demand the overthrow of tyranny. Render unto Caesar is the preferred political stance. However, it has resisted spiritual annihilation. Christianity’s resilience in the face of such tyranny is demonstrated by its survival in the face of twentieth century totalitarian regimes.
December 25 is scarcely the time for questions of this nature. This is a day to remember a poor manger in a small town and rejoice in the arrival, forever renewed, of a promise of freedom, of salvation. The suppression of this promise, however, cannot be ruled out. Christianity’s friends, at least, can worry about this on Christmas Day.