Elephants and the Jewish Question

There are no elephants in the Jewish Bible, and also no Maccabees — but there are elephants in both First and Second Maccabees, which got me to thinking some obscure thoughts last night.

The candles I use with my menorah burn for about an hour. I like to spend that hour in some kind of discussion or study or meditation on Hanuka questions, answers, and interpretations — of which, happily, there are a million varieties. For me, they often center around the matter of which side am I on, the Hellenists’ or the Maccabees’?

So there I was, watching three candles burn and contemplating Hanuka matters for possible discussion on this blog . . .

Historical questions, like, Why did those rabbis of the Talmudic period (i.e., the first four centuries of the Common Era) fail to include the Books of Maccabees in the canonized Bible, and why did they barely mention the Maccabeean uprising in their many recorded discussions? For fear of fomenting further abortive uprisings against Rome, say some historians; because they disapproved, say others, of the Hasmonean dynasty established by the Maccabees, which had pursued conquest, forcible conversion, assassination, and other Hellenistic practices until Rome took over a hundred years later.

Then there were cultural questions, like, Why do Jews gamble with the dreydl on Hanuka? The folklore holds that when the Hellenists made the study of Torah illegal, the Jews would gather with a lookout, and if danger approached, they would be alerted to hide their scrolls and begin spinning dreydls, as in: “Officer, it’s just a game of chance! You want to sit in, maybe?”

There were political questions, like, What’s the difference between the Maccabees back then and Islamic fundamentalists today? Nothing, perhaps, except twenty centuries of human development.

There were grammatical questions, like, How the hell do you spell Hanuka-Hanukkah- Chanukah-Khanike, anyway? A: Hwvr u lik 2.

There were spiritual questions, like, Why eight days? Some kabbalists say: The eight days represent infinity (8, on its side, is the infinity symbol). While Creation took seven days (including a day of rest), represented by the seven sefirot that are accessible to human apprehension, the eighth day represents the eighth sefirah, Understanding, which is beyond human apprehension and reflects God’s Infinite Light — or something like that. (It’s all Syrian Greek to me.) I say: Eight days brings the total number of candles lit for Hanuka to 36, which is the total corps of the lamed vovnikii, the legendary 36 righteous human beings who prevent the world from shaking itself apart with grief.

Suddenly the candles flickered. Good God, was the world shaking itself apart with grief?!

No, elephants were stampeding through my brain.

The great beasts appear in the Books of Maccabees as war machines used by the Syrian Greeks against the Jewish rebels. One elephant is slain by Judah Maccabee’s brother, Elazar, upon whom it falls, crushing him to death.

Remembering this, I find myself feeling worse for the elephant than for Elazar. And when I feel that feeling, I find myself thinking, What kind of humanist am I?

Ditto, when I read about global warming: I respond more to the plight of the polar bears, who are surely beginning to drown for lack of solid ice throughout their habitat, than I respond to the prospect of human suffering from those rising seas. Both events disturb me deeply, but the helpless-victim status of the beasts, and their likely extinction, as opposed to the collective-responsibility status of human beings, and their likely suffering, moves my heart more deeply.

No, I’m not boasting about this — I’m confessing to it.

In contrast to my misanthropy, of course, all of the Bible-based religions toast human beings as the “crown of creation,” uniquely made b’tselem elohim, in God’s image. Human beings, not animals, have souls; human beings, not animals, are each precious, so that the saving of one human life, says the Talmud, is equivalent to the saving of a universe; and the world itself, and everything in it, was made for our pleasure and nurture.

Such “humanism” translates to hubris very easily. Notwithstanding various religious messages about “stewardship,” we’ve too often interpreted our “in God’s image” status to mean we are uniquely entitled, not uniquely responsible — and thus we’ve made a mess of our planet, and feel reluctant to make the sacrifices needed to fix it.

Modern science, on the other hand — especially biological and genetic science — has helped to cultivate my biocentrism, a feeling for life that goes beyond humanism. When I learn, for example, that I share 98 percent of my genes with chimpanzees, it makes me want to give the chimpanzees the space to live. When I learn that mice have feelings, too, it makes me want to use have-a-heart traps instead of poison to get them out of my house. And when I learn that elephants have joyous meeting rituals, grieve at the loss of their babies and herd members, communicate across miles with low-frequency sounds, bear grudges and accept apologies, learn from their elders, etc. etc., it makes me feel appalled by the slaughter of these magnificent creatures for ivory — and by their impressment into military service by Syrian Greeks!

Thus I become receptive to biocentric environmentalism, of the kind most eloquently expressed by Thomas Berry (in his book, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, 1999):

“In reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its inner spontaneity. . . . Every being enters into communion with other beings. This capacity for relatedness, for presence to other beings, for spontaneity in action, is a capacity possessed by every mode of being throughout the entire universe. . . . So too every being has rights to be recognized and revered. Trees have tree rights, insects have insect rights, rivers have river rights, mountains have mountain rights.”

Nu, what's the Hanuka-Hanukkah-Chanukah-Khanike connection? Just this: For me, the world of science — the world of Hellenism, secular knowledge, nature-worship — is a far greater source of inspiration than Judaism when it comes to prompting my appreciation of creatures beyond the pale of my humanistic bias. On the other hand, Judaism’s teachings of restraint — restraint of our appetites, our lusts, our egotism, or yetzer hara (evil urge) — far exceeds Hellenistic decadence when it comes to defining a pathway to environmental sanity. The Hellenistic path of knowledge, the Jewish path of behavior — there we have a winning synthesis. Instead of the Maccabee spearing the elephant and being crushed, in turn, by its toppling corpse . . .

Lawrence Bush
Editor, Jewish Currents


Blogger Nina said...


Maybe you're an animist, not a humanist.

I can relate. My husband often complains that I am more sympathetic to the cats' needs than to his... to which I say, the cats can't ask for what they need, but you can!

I started to think more about what you wrote, and whether you're a Humanist or an Animist, and how I would define myself. Lots of food for thought in your post, and I hadn't even had dinner yet. (Note to self: eat before reading this blog, it's too hard to focus on all these meaty thoughts when I'm hungry.) I looked up the term Animism and found this among the many definitions in Wikipedia:

'Modern Neopagans, especially Eco-Pagans, sometimes describe themselves as animists, meaning that they respect the diverse community of living beings and spirits with whom humans share the world/cosmos.'

That sounds kind of like what you are saying... although most definitions of Animism also include something about believing in animals as spirit guides, or spirits of nature and place, which are powerful as minor deities. This is where I start to say, well... I love my cats, and I do believe they are incredibly sweet and compassionate, sympathetic beings, but minor deities? I don't think so.

As to the age-old question of "How Do You Spell Channukkahh?" - there is a new recording by a group called the LeeVees that asks this very question, in a most entertaining way. Here is the video on YouTube (you may have to cut and paste the link into your browser):


Truly a Chanukah song for our time.

Now as to candles burning... I was given the honor of lighting the menorah in the synagogue at the nursing home this afternoon and tomorrow, because the rabbi has to be somewhere else. This is a HUGE ceremonial (synagogue-size) menorah, and this is broadcast on closed circuit television throughout the entire home (and transmitted via loudspeakers to every floor). The rabbi had instructed me to open the ark, sing a few songs of my choice, and then say the blessings and light the candles. The whole thing was to take about 15 minutes, and I was to leave the video camera on the candles as they burned down. (Kind of like the Jewish answer to the Yule Log on WPIX, I thought.)

Well... I was pretty nervous, I must say. Somehow I felt as if I'd been asked to sing the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium. I sucked on a Ricola cough drop as I tuned my guitar and wondered if I'd blow the blessings, forget a line, drop the match... but when I entered the synagogue this afternoon and saw some familiar faces waiting for me, I relaxed a bit. I welcomed everyone and I reminded them that old age is not always a hindrance, as evidenced by the story of Mattathias... that those legendary Maccabees were a bunch of old men, and they did okay, or we wouldn't be lighting candles here today!

I sang a few songs in a few languages - "Oy Chanukah" in English and Yiddish, "Mi Yemaleil" in Hebrew and English, and "Ocho Kandelikas" in Ladino. Then it was time to bless and light the candles, which went smoothly (huge sigh of relief), and then we all sang "Maos Tzur" and then I ended with a humorous Chanukah song, "Eight Days of Chanukah," a little ditty by Paul Zim (I think) to the tune of "Those Were the Days." And before I knew it, the whole thing was over.

As I packed up my guitar and went back to my office, I was feeling pretty darned proud of myself. Hey, I held my own up there on the bima - not bad for a secular Jew! I left work and started driving home, and then somewhere along the Mosholu Parkway I suddenly realized something that I had, indeed, forgotten. I FORGOT TO OPEN THE ARK! Whooooooops. Good thing none of the nursing home residents seemed to notice... all I heard were compliments from those I met on how much they enjoyed the music. One of them even called me "Rebbetzen." Oy!

So, it seems that for this night of Chanukah, at least, culture was more relevant than religion in that particular synagogue. This amuses me, although I'm not sure why. And tomorrow, yes, I'll remember to open the Ark.

But for now... I'm lighting candles and sharing my latkes with the cats. Then I'm going to go talk to my daughter about why Socrates is her favorite philosopher. How's that for a synthesis of Hellenism & Judaism?

Chag Sameach!

8:54 PM  
Blogger Peter Schweitzer said...

I enjoyed your new blog entry. Here are two more thoughts:

1. The other reason that the rabbis are reputed to have censored the military victory and created the miracle story is so that they could stay in business as theocratic channelers and interpreters of God's word. Aside from not wanting to foment unrest and rebellion against the Romans, they were feeling threatened by a rising secular political class that believed in taking matters into ones' own hand. They wanted to protect their own employment.

2. Re your analysis that "such 'humanism' translates to hubris very easily: I agree that some of the worst "stewards" of the earth are those who think they have the God-given right to rule it, strip it of its resources, etc. On the other hand, I think that humanism gets a bad rap when it is falsely accused of establishing Humans in the place of God. My belief has been that humans have great capacity to do good, to act justly, etc. without a reliance on an intervening supernatural deity. But we do not make the claim -- in this god's absence -- that we now are the all-powerful ones. To claim that we are is hubris. Fortunately, the humanists I know are all imperfect and mostly humble.

Best wishes for a Happy Chanukah!
Rabbi Peter Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

12:00 PM  
Blogger Ralph Seliger said...

I enjoyed this, but I think that Larry got carried away with that quote about rivers and mountains. Still, readers may want to glance at my Meretz USA weblog posting on Christmas day of "'Tis the Season to be Pagan" http://meretzusa.blogspot.com/ plus one last week called "Hanukkah: A Cautionary Tale."

11:59 AM  

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