I’m sure Christopher Hitchens would have no problem with me, an admirer, taking him to task for a shoddy piece he wrote about Chanukah a few years ago in Slate. Hitchens, the eloquent atheist and polemicist, who died last week, at 62, had no problem with criticism. In fact, he reveled in it, and even was kind enough to engage in a public debate with a rabbi who writes for our paper about the rather simple matter: whether God exists. I don’t need to tell you who was in God’s corner in that one, but it’s worth noting that despite the phenomenal commercial success of Hitchen’s 2007 screed, “God Is Not Great,” it was perhaps the least convincing book he ever wrote.
Don’t bother buying it. But do bother reading this little ditty he wrote on Hanukkah. In it, you see Hitchens engaging in the same sophomoric argument against religion that he did in that book. In “God is Not Great,” he argued that all the monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christian, Islam—were basically fairly tales masquerading as honest-to-goodness history. Apparently no one sent him the memo that rabbis and modernizing clergymen generally have been distancing themselves from the historical veracity of their treasured texts for centuries. Instead, they’ve been emphasizing the moral teachings and rich cultural traditions that are rooted in those texts instead.
But never mind. Apparently, Hitchens thinks all religious people are fundamentalists. I’m not even religious myself, and I even agree with Hitchen’s basic take that the Bible is a very weak work of history. But to equate all even most religious people as simple-minded fanatics is to subscribe to the same churlish, childish understanding of an issue Hitchens himself, in a less apoplectic state, would detest.
Anyway, what’s he got to say about Chanukah? Basically, he gets the history right: it’s little more than the veneration of a thuggish sect of Jewish fanatics—the Macabbees—over secular, Hellenized Jews and their shared nemesis, the Greek king Antiochus. The basic history most scholars accept, and Hitchens repeats, is that Antiochus invaded Jerusalem in the second century BCE to crush an internal war between two quarreling Jewish sects.
The Hellenized—read: more liberal—Jewish sect, led by a Jew named Jason, had taken over Jerusalem after he mistakenly thought Antiochus, who ruled over Jerusalem, but from afar, was dead. But when the strict orthodox Jewish sect, known as the Macabbees, saw their sacred city being colonized by these liberal Jews, they attacked. A Jewish war broke out, and Antiochius used that as an excuse to assert firm Greek control. He vandalized the city’s temples, massacred many of its Jews, and demanded all of them, Macabbee and Hellenized alike, worship Zeus. But the Greeks lost. The Macabees won, and the oil that was to last one night instead lasted eight. Happy Chanukah.
Hitchens gets all this right, but then he goes off the deep end. He engages in a cardinal sin of historical interpretation: the use of the counterfactual. In other words, he argues that had X not had happened, then Y and Z would not have happened either. In this case, Hitchens plugs in “Macabbees” for X, and argues that if they had not won, then Christianity—which he detests—and Islam—which he detests even more—would never had developed. I hope Hitchens would take no offense when I call this sheer stupidity. To argue that one victory of small Jewish tribe, in a battle over Jerusalem that had been going on for centuries, would have prevented the development of two far greater and more powerful faiths hundreds of years later is to believe that history is guided by simple, one-to-one cause and effect. It’s as if to suggest that had Ben Franklin, who by the end of his life was against slavery, been elected America’s first president, then the Civil War would have been averted. Which is absurd.
Don’t get me wrong, Hitch, the honest truth is that I’ll miss you. And I hope that you take this quibble of mine in the same spirit you always did: with great pleasure, and in stride.