Responding to Hitchens and David Brooks on Chanukah


In the typical fashion that have made Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins into heroes among those who hate (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not–there are some destructive elements in many religions, but that’s not the whole story) the religions of the world, we get in the article on Chanukah [1] (which you can find below) Hitchens’ distortions endorsed by Dawkins.

The approach is typical: a religious view or practice is misdescribed and distorted, then ridiculed. The critique is made to seem plausible by quoting out of context and taking the least sophisticated possible interpretations of whatever religious tradition is being critiqued.

Unlike Hitchens and fellow traveler Dawkins, I first present the entirety of Hitchens attack [1], so you can read it in context, then the original text he is crirtiquing which I wrote in 2007 and which he misrepresents. All this followed by my comments.

After you’ve read it all, you could try to figure out why anyone with a serious intellectual curiosity would give a moment’s attention to Hitchens’ intellectual clownishness.

Both Hitchens and Dawkins take the most primitve versions of religion, seemingly unaware of the variants of religion that have evolved through the ages. They seem unfamiliar with how religious and theological interpretations have evovled ovder the course of the past two thousand years or more. They take English translations of texts that are complicated in their original meaning, and then they ignore the struggles over the centuries by the faithful to figure out what those meanings really are.

Moreover, both Hitchens and Dawkins argue as though it is sufficient to disprove a theology or a worldview if you can find people using it to justify oppressive behavior. Yet there is no ideology and no anti-ideology that hasn’t been used in an oppressive way.

This way of arguing is kind of like denouncing "democracy" and using as proof text the presidency of George W. Bush. Sure, it was horrible, it really happened, and its violent and oppressive consequences are still with us, and it was produced by a democratic system (well, not fully democratic). But showing the barbarity of US interventions in Iraq, now under Obama in Afghanistan and Pakistan, does not lead anyone with sophistication to reason in the Hitchens/Dawkins style: "this destructive behavior emerged in a democratic system, therefore democracy is worthless." Yet that is precisely the form of argument underlying most of Hitchens/Dawkins.

Imagine how they’d howl if we used the same form of argument against atheism and said: "Hitler and Stalin were atheists, they established political systems that persecuted the established religions of their societies, and those societies then killed tens of millions of innocents, therefore atheism produces genocide." The argument is ridiculous for the same reason that Hitchens/Dawkins are ridiculous.

But being ridiculous is only the beginning. Look below to see how dishonest or at least intellectually sloppy Hitchens becomes in an article that Dawkins then publishes on his website with praise.

David Brooks is altogether different. His thinking is much more nuanced and sophisticated. He doesn’t show any of the vulgarity of Hitchens and Dawkins. So although I strongly disagree with his fundamental worldview and the politics it yields, I believe his mis-reading of Chanukah deserves a far more respectful treatment than I’m going to give in this piece, because it would take a much longer historical discussion. Yet I will take on one of his primary mistakes in the third section below.

Now, lets look at what I (Rabbi Lerner) actually said about Chanukah and the rise of Greek forms of rationality and culture:

Though the holiday celebrated by lighting candles for 8 nights recalls the victory of the guerrilla struggle led by the Maccabees against the Syrian branch of the Greek empire, and the subsequent rededication (Chaunkah in Hebrew) of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., there was a more difficult struggle which took place (and in some dimensions still rages) within the Jewish people between those who hoped for a triumph of a spiritual vision of the world embedded (as it turned out, quite imperfectly) in the Maccabbees and a cynical realism that had become the common sense of the merchants and priests who dominated the more cosmopolitan arena of Jerusalem.

The cynical realists in Judea, among them many of the priests charged with preserving the Temple, argued that Greek power was overwhelming and that it made far greater sense to accommodate to it than to resist. The Greek globalizers promised advances in science and technology that could benefit international trade and enrich the local merchants who sided with them, even though the taxes that accompanied their rule impoverished the Jewish peasants who worked the land and eked out a subsistence living. Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theatre of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

To the Maccabbees, the guerrilla band that they assembled to fight the Greek Empire and its Seleucid dynasty in Syria, and to many of the Jewish supporters of that struggle, the issue of Greek militarism, social injustice and oppression were far more salient than the accomplishments of Greek high culture. Whatever might be the value of Athenian democracy, the reality that it exported to the world through Alexander and his successors was oppressive and exploitative.

The "oldtime religion" that the Maccabbees fought to preserve had revolutionary elements in it that went far beyond the Greeks in articulating a liberatory vision: not only in the somewhat abstract demand to "love your neighbor as yourself," "love the stranger," and pursue justice and peace, but also concretely in Torah prescriptions to abolish all debts every seven years, allow the land to lie fallow every seven years, refrain from all work and activities connected to control over the earth once a week on Sabbath, redistribute the land every fifty years (the Jubilee) back to its original equal distribution.

The identification with the oppressed, enshrined in Judaism in its insistence that Jews were derived from slaves who had been liberated, and in its focus on retelling the story of being oppressed that was central to the Torah, seemed atavistic and naive to the more educated and enlightened Jewish urban dwellers, who pointed to the reactionary tribalistic elements of Torah and sided with the Greeks when they declared circumcision and study of Torah illegal and banned the observance of the Sabbath.

The miracle of Chanukah is that so many people were able to resist the overwhelming "reality" imposed by the imperialists and to stay loyal to a vision of a world based on generosity, love of stranger, and loyalty to an invisible God who promised that life could be based on justice and peace. It was these "little guys," the powerless, who managed to sustain a vision of hope that inspired them to fight against overwhelming odds, against the power of technology and science organized in the service of domination, and despite the fact that they were dismissed as terrorists and fundamentalist crazies. When this kind of energy, what religious people call "the Spirit of God," becomes ingredient in the consciousness of ordinary people, miracles ensue.

It is this same radical hope, whether rooted in religion or secularist belief systems, that remains the foundation for all who continue to struggle for a world of peace and social justice at a time when the champions of war and injustice dominate the political and economic institutions of our own society, often with the assistance of their contemporary cheerleading religious leaders. It is that radical hope that is celebrated this Chanukah by those Jews who have not yet joined the contemporary Hellenists.

Rabbi Lerner’s commentary:

1. If you read the original article, you will see that I do not say anything that could justify Hitchens claim that I said "away with all that" referring to rational thinking or Greek culture. Nor is there anything suggesting, as Hitchens alleges, that I prefer fundamentalist thuggery to secularism and philosophy (by the way, I have a ph.d. in philosophy). What I did say was that the Maccabbees perceived that culture as part of the overall enterprise of Greek imperialism. "To the Maccabees, the issue of Greek militarism, social injustice and oppression were far more salient than the accomplishments of Greek high culture. Whatever might be the value of Athenian democracy, the reality that it exported to the world through Alexander and his successors was oppressive and exploitative." The same may help us understand (not agree with) the rejection of Western culture by some fundamentalist groups today, seeing that culture as fundamentally linked to Western imperialism. Understanding that gives us a better way not to apologize for fundamentalism but to challenge it effectively.

Let me explain. The imperialists set a choice for peoples that they conquer: If you want our science, literature, and culture (all things that I value, and many others should too), then you must embrace our political, economic and cultural domination over you. The fundamentalists respond by saying: no, I don’t want your economic, political or cultural domination, and anyone who wants true freedom and an opportunity to hold on to what is good in the religious traditions that we’ve developed must reject anything that smacks of Western versions of rationality, science, literature and culture.

But to those of us who are spiritual progressives, this choice is a false one imposed by two contending sides each of which has something to offer and each of which has much that is distorted.

As I describe in my books The Politics of Meaning (1996), Spirit Matters (2000) and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country From the Religious Right (2006), a spiritual progressive embraces science and rationality, though it also embraces forms of rationality that have been developed by women and that integrate aspects of emotional, spiritual, and ecological literacy into our conceptions of rationality (all of which are increasingly now being explored by social science and psychology). But a spiritual progressive also embraces "A new bottom line" in which institutions, social practices, corporations, government policies and even our own behavior are judged "efficient, rational or productive" not only to the extent that they maximize money or power (the Old Bottom Line), but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity, enhance our capacities to experience others as embodiments of the sacred and enhance our capacities to respond to the universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of all being. This is a conception of rationality and productivity and efficiency that does not derive from the wisdom of Athens or Rome and their powerful armies, but from Jerusalem (though it is shared by many of the other wisdom traditions of the world).

So, trying to suggest that in embracing some aspects of what the Macabees were trying to accomplish one must thereby be committed to rejecting all that is good in the West is an outright distortion, and reflects either intellectual sloppiness or a willful desire to distort. It is this same approach that appears over and over again in the tirades of Hitchens and, to a lesser but nevertheless significant extent, in the writings on God of Dawkins.

[By the way, you might also want to read an updated version of my analysis of the meaning of Chanukah in the current issue of Tikkun magazine, part of which you can find at]

2. Hitchens is joined by David Brooks in the N.Y. Times on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009, where Brooks talks about the resistance to Syrian Hellenistic rule as a resistance to Western culture. His presentation of Greek culture and intentions is positively idyllic: "Alexander’s Empire, and the smaller empires that succeeded it, brought modernizing ideas and institutions to the Middle East. At its best, Hellenistic culture emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. It brought theaters, gymnasiums and debating societies to the cities. It raised living standards, especially in places like Jerusalem. Many Jewish reformers embraced these improvements. The Greeks had one central idea: their aspirations to create an advanced universal culture. And the Jews had their own central idea: the idea of one true God. "

As I’ve argued above, Hellenistic culture was part of the imperialist package, and that was part of what the Maccabees struggled against. But the struggles between Syria and Egypt to dominate Judea which went on from the death of Alexander in 325 BCE till the actual rebellion against Syria by Jews in 165 BCE was not a struggle about whether Syria or Egypt would have the primary honor of extending Greek culture to the Jewish peasantry. Brooks makes it seem as if the Jews only concern was about the culture. But if you study the struggles between Ptolemaic and Seleucid manifestations of Hellenism and why they often fought each other, you quickly discover that their aims were imperialistic first and foremost, not spreading Greek enlightenment. They were not fighting about who could present the Greek plays or philosophy or science or be the most effective in teaching the masses how to reason according to the Greek’s system of logic. Rather, the struggle was about who would have the right to exploit the Jewish (and other countries’ ) peasantry, take away the agricultural surplus (and some of the basic necessities) so as to enrich their own Syrian or Egyptian society. The Maccabees were set into motion when the Syrians started punishing by death those who practiced Judaism, but the underlying grievances had much to do with the economic imperialism that motivated the Hellenistic powers.

Brooks is entirely right to raise the fact that in the actual struggle, the Maccabees were often brutal in imposing their religious system on others and in using violence to achieve their ends. But David Brooks has been a supporter of using violent means to achieve democratic ends in the Middle East. I’d feel more convinced by Brooks if he had raised the same objections to celebrating July 4th or Veterans’ Day in the U.S. Why raise these issues around Chanukah but not about the use of the atomic bomb against Japan’s civilian population. And how does imposing "democracy" at the point of a gun on societies that are resistant to it on a higher moral scale than imposing some other relgious, ethical or ideological system through violence?

3. It is true that the revolt we celebrate at Chanukah did not produce an ideal society. The grandchildren of the Maccabees created a corrupt theocracy that I would not have wanted to live in. And some fundamentalist expansionists in Israel today rely on the Chanukah story as part of the cultural foundation for their oppressive rule over Palestinians. But that does not invalidate the celebration of Chanukah as we in the spiritual progressive world interpret it.

Here we have to understand the value of partial victories in the struggle for human liberation. I celebrate the American Revolution on July 4, even though what followed from it was a society in which slavery grew and prospered. I celebrate the parts of that revolution that opened up a process that could eventually lead to an expansion of democratic rights, even though at first the democracy it achieved was really restricted to the well-to-do men of the colonies. Similarly, I celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Soviet-style communism even though the societies that emerged in Eastern Europe reestablished forms of capitalism that have so far denied to many the fundamental human rights of education, employment and health care that were more widely available before 1989.

My point is that we have to recognize how to celebrate partial victories that can (but won’t necessarily) be built upon in the future, because that’s all we are likely to get in any given lifetime-partial and somewhat flawed victories. If all we can focus on is "what has not yet been accomplished," we create a psychological dynamic that leads to depression, passivity and what I call in a 1990 book Surplus Powerlessness. So, yes we can celebrate partial victories, and build upon them, and while we might give lots of focus all year long to the limitations of those victories, it is not a bad idea to have a few days dedicated to celebrating what was accomplished, however lacking.

What’s really at stake in all this is the ability to think about religion in a more nuanced way. I think I understand why David Brooks and Christopher Hitchens seem to identify with the Hellenists-they never met an imperialist they didn’t embrace. They have been among the more enthusiastic supporters of U.S. imperialism in the last decade, so naturally they’d find more in common with the imperialists of the past. (Dawkins does not swing their same way).

But that doesn’t mean that I or spiritual progressives find more in common with the fundamentalists of the past. On the contrary, we reject both alternatives and embrace instead a path that is both pro-science and rationality as well as pro-spiritual consciousness, God, and progressive forms (but not reactionary versions of) religion. In fact, that is what Tikkun magazine (subscribe at and the Network of Spiritual Progressives (join at are all about–supporting what I call "emancipatory spirituality": a spiritual path that is pro-science, pro-rationality, and pro-spirituality, pro-human liberation, and pro-God– and that is why we find ourselves in the forefront of the struggle against Israeli occupation of Palestinians, the U.S. role in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Russian role in Chechnya, the Chinese role in Tibet, and the human rights violating societies of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and countless others.

In fact, you don’t have to be a religious person or believe in God to be a spiritual progressive-you only have to support the New Bottom Line described above. And with that understanding, you can see why we support both Chanukah and Christmas and many other religions’ celebrations, at least the versions of them that are being developed by spiritual progressives, while rejecting the ethos of materialism, selfishness and me-firstism (and chauvinism of every kind including that embodied in some interpretations of "Jews as the chosen people") that have been fostered in the contemporary world by the logic of capitalism.


[1]. Bah, HanukkahThe holiday celebrates the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness.
by Christopher Hitchens, December 3, 2007,


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