Monday, December 10, 2012

On Ambiguities in Jewish History - A Correspondence with a Concerned Reader

I recently received an e-mail from a reader, Chanie, who was legitimately concerned about an aspect of an earlier post of mine. With her permission, I am sharing our brief correspondence (slightly edited), as I believe it touches upon an important issue with regard to our understanding of history in general, and Jewish history in particular:

First of all, great blog - I always look forward to your posts and the insights they bring to light.

With regard to your post on how the Chanukah revolt began - you quote a Midrash that states: "When her brothers saw this, they were ashamed, they turned their faces to the ground, tore their clothes, and they got up to kill her."

What a horrific story - it sounds exactly like the honor killings we condemn the Muslims for carrying out. How could the Maccabees, whom we hold up as heroes, have been so ready to kill their sister?
I responded:
Dear Chanie,

Thank you very much for contacting me. I am always grateful to hear from appreciative readers (or any readers at all, actually).

The question you asked about the passage I quoted is certainly a good one. The truth is that the same thing has always bothered me, and when I originally posted it I was tempted to edit that little bit out. I don't have a ready explanation for how they could have thought that it would be proper to kill their sister under such circumstances.

Of course, one of the main problems is that we are dealing here with a minor midrash, or, perhaps more accurately, a midrashic fragment (the entire midrash is at most a couple pages long), of unknown provenance. Asides from the fact that such midrashim have no commentaries whatsoever (which is a big problem), they are often simply unreliable. Even if the basic narrative is true, we have no way of knowing to what degree the story has been modified or embellished by unknown hands over the centuries.

In this case, I suspect the idea that the brothers got up to - literally - kill her (assuming the midrash is, in fact, intended to be taken literally on that point, and it isn't simply an exaggeration)  was an embellishment from a later author intended to bring out the ironic point made by the female character: "You are so filled with zealous rage for my minor infraction, yet you will give me over to that uncircumcised Gentile to be raped?!"

I suspect that in the original version of the story, the brothers probably didn't do much at all, beyond yelling at her to put her clothes back on. Perhaps they got up to take her away where no one could see her. (I mean, what do you do when your sister strips naked at her wedding??)

In fact, after receiving your e-mail I looked into it a bit more, and there actually is an alternate version of the story where the bride doesn't strip naked, but simply dresses herself in rags, with the intent of provoking the governor to kill her (because she is supposed to show up in her wedding finery), and the bride's family expresses embarrassment that she is dressed in such a manner at her wedding, to which she responds with the same basic speech, which, in turn, inspires the revolution. This version makes the same basic point as the one I posted, but it lacks much of the drama that makes the story so memorable. Of course, it is possible that this version is also modified, perhaps in order to be more palatable to our sensibilities. It is impossible to know.

So, I guess my answer is that when dealing with sources of this sort, you just have to know how to take the good and discard the bad. As someone who has a long-standing interest in material of this sort, I pretty much do this automatically, but I need to bear in mind that most people don't.

I really appreciate your taking the trouble to contact me about this.

A freilichen Chanukah,
Lazer Abrahamson
 Chanie replied:
Thanks so much for your quick and thorough response - I really appreciate your taking the time! And thanks for your candor - it's a bit frustrating not knowing what really happened, but your explanation is one I can live with.

Just to clarify another point - so the story of Yehudis probably didn't happen? Is there any basis for combining the stories as this site suggests ?

I replied:
One of the most basic lessons that I have learned in my studies of, primarily Jewish, history, is that the real world is messy. It is human nature to look for patterns in history - and current events - that have structure, with a clear cast of characters, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. Basically, the kind of structure that we look for in fiction. But reality isn't really like that, at least not on a level that we are able to perceive with our very limited knowledge of events.

This truth is often missed by people, especially intelligent people, who instinctively try to "make sense" out of events, both current and historical. (At its most extreme, this kind of thinking can lead to conspiracy theories, a large part of whose appeal is their apparent "explanatory" power, or to radical "revisionism", where basic historical realities are denied (as in Holocaust denial).) Even professional historians, who ought to know better, often fall prey to this kind of thinking, especially when it fits in with preexisting biases.

This is true even for modern history, despite the fact that we have often have direct access to eyewitnesses and modern records.When it comes to ancient history the situation is far worse. There is so much information that has been lost over time, and so much information that has been distorted and changed, that it is usually simply impossible to reliably reconstruct the exact details of events.

The story of Judith - and the other stories of female heroes associated with Chanuka - are almost certainly built upon actual historical events. In fact, it is quite possible, arguably even likely, that there were several separate stories, involving different women, that over the ages evolved into the two or three basic narratives that we have today. However, untangling the exact details is probably impossible.

Strictly speaking, I have no problem with telling over these stories as part of our tradition, being that they are certainly based on reality. (As opposed to the silliness about the ancient Jewish children playing dreidle in the woods, which is up there with Haman's triangular hat as pure fiction), but I think it is important for adults to at least be aware that the exact details of such stories are far from clear.

I hope this is helpful.

All the best,
Lazer Abrahamson
Chanie replied:
Re: stories in Jewish history and looking for completion - I never thought about it that way. I hear you, I guess we do like things nice and tidy, but I agree that intellectual honesty is preferable to fairy tales, so thanks for being straightforward.

Looking forward to future posts!

No comments: