Thursday, December 22, 2011

"There were no Maccabees!"

One Chanuka, some years ago, I got a phone call from a student's mother who was a bit upset with me. She told me that the previous night her family had hosted a little Chanukah get-together and some of the guests knew very little about Chanuka. So she and her husband decided to display their son's Jewish education and asked him to give an impromptu speech about what he had recently learned about Chanuka. The young man, one of my students at the time (he was in 7th or 8th grade), being put suddenly on the spot, blurted out the one "fact" about Chanuka that he had apparently retained from the last couple weeks worth of lessons on the topic. "There were no Maccabees!" he declared. Of course, this rather shocked his parents, but, not being able to make heads or tails of this statement, the mother tried to shift to a safer topic, dreidel! Where did dreidel come from? "From the Germans!" declared my young student. 

Unsurprisingly, the parents were mortified, as was I, when I heard the story. As I explained to the mother, her son had partially picked up on (and remembered) some of the topics we had discusses in class - those that, in his mind, had "shock value" - without understanding them. I had told the class, at one point, that when we study the period of the Maccabees, we have to realize that the term "Maccabees" is an anachronism and that the people we call "the Maccabees" would not have recognized the term. There was only one man known as "the Maccabee" and that was the famous Judah the Maccabee. The use of the term "Maccabees" to refer to the entire Jewish rebel force that fought the Greeks developed later and primarily in non-Jewish circles.

As for dreidel, well what their son had said was actually correct, sort of. The dreidel game is simply a variant form of a gambling game popular in Europe, especially the German version of the game, and the letters on the side of the dreidel refer to the German/Yiddish terms for what happens when that letter comes up in the game. All of the famous commentaries about the dreidel - including the acronym נס גדול היה שם, "A great miracle happened there" - developed afterwards.

Why the dreidel game became customarily associated with Chanuka remains a mystery. Gambling games in general have become associated with Chanuka, even though there is no basis for this and rabbinic authorities have strongly condemned such activities. However, the dreidel doesn't seem to fall under condemnation even in these sources.

In any case, the incident brought out a point for me that I have yet to fully resolve in my own mind. On the one hand, a teacher has an obligation to teach the truth. This is obvious, of course, but there are times when the truth is complicated and students, especially the less attentive or less mature, may miss crucial pieces and end up even more confused than before. As in this case, the people we call the Maccabees certainly did exist, even though they weren't known by that name at that time. By attempting to give my students a more sophisticated understanding of the past, I had caused one of my students to think that the whole story was a myth. (I'm actually not sure what he thought, that never became clear.)

The problem is that there will always be some students who have difficulty with a level of complexity that the bulk of their peers are capable of handling. So, as a rebbi (a rabbi who teaches Judaic studies), I am forced to choose between leaving the bulk of my students with a simplistic understanding of Judaism that they have really outgrown, or with leaving some of my students with, at best, a confused understanding.

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