How Hanukkah Led Me to Cultural Anthropology

What’s on your un-American cultural activities list?

Posted Dec 08, 2010

Behind the happy face of Hanukkah is a serious question: Is there room for the way of life of the very un-modern Maccabees in a liberal democracy such as our own? Whether we acknowledge it or not, each of us keeps a list of un-American cultural activities. What's on your un-American activities list?

I sometimes wonder if I became a cultural anthropologist because of Hanukkah. I mean the kind of anthropologist who actually thinks about the Hanukkah story when he or she reads a 2010 report by the Royal Dutch Medical Association suggesting that there are good reasons to legally prohibit neonatal male circumcision in Holland, where circumcision is practiced primarily by minority groups such as Jews and Muslims.

I mean the kind of anthropologist who is a robust cultural pluralist and believes there can be wisdom in the maxim "divided we stand," especially when it comes to building minarets in Switzerland or permitting Mosques, Temples and Churches in lower Manhattan.

I mean the kind of cultural anthropologist who believes that internationally and domestically there are many traditions of value with regard to family life, gender and sexuality and that no one standard deserves to be the universal standard for all morally sensitive and reality seeking human beings.

I mean the kind of anthropologist who sees the virtue and the reason in the way of life of the very un-modern and illiberal Amish as well as in the way of life of folks who live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the folk can't get enough of liberalism and modernity.

I mean the kind of cultural anthropologist who believes that the ancient Jews had it right: one cannot live by ecumenism alone and the illiberality of a cultural practice is not necessarily a measure of its immorality. All of which brings me back to Hanukkah and my youthful fascination with a Jewish insurgency movement in the second century B.C.E., which turned out to be far less modern and far more morally complex than I had initially thought.

The eight day Hanukkah holiday began on December 2 and is currently being celebrated with a happy face and a positive spin by Jewish communities around the world. Songs are sung. Dreydels are spun. Gifts are given. Every night candles are lit so as to recount and vicariously experience a tale about a very meager provision of consecrated olive oil which miraculously managed to fuel the eternal flame of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem for eight days, thereby keeping the spiritual beacon of the Jewish people alive and burning while new fuel was pressed, consecrated and re-supplied. There is very little moral complexity in a happy face.

And for contemporary American Jews, especially those who are mainstreamed and modern, collective memory has settled upon a simple and straightforward moral plot line (featuring opposition to oppression) and a rather sanitized version of a biblical story about the uprising known as the Maccabee revolt. The narrative concerns events in the second century B.C.E. that lead up to the cleansing and re-sanctification of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of the Greek Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who, in the eyes of the insurgent Jewish community, had defiled that holy ground by slaughtering pigs therein and worshipping a Greek god.

Hanukkah not only commemorates the Maccabee resistance movement. Today for many American Jews the main reasons for the "festival of lights" are to celebrate their triumph over the evil tyrant Antiochus IV, to praise their defense of religious liberty; and to interpret the insurgency as a just cause motivated by a conception of natural rights akin to that expressed in the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. That is how the story was told in my family when I grew up. That is how I recall it being interpreted in a heroic historical novel about the Maccabees I read as a preadolescent titled My Glorious Brothers, written by the author Howard Fast.

At the time I was not yet a cultural anthropologist. I had not thought about the doctrine of cultural pluralism. And I am pretty sure I was not even dimly aware that the Maccabee insurgency was in fact a defense of parochial Jewish customs against the universalizing force of Hellenic civilization. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was one of the regional political successors to Alexander the Great. His moral missionaries included not only wealthy, powerful and influential Syrian Greek outsiders but also resident Jewish cosmopolites who were the enlightened secular liberals of that era and thus did not believe in the divine origins of sacred texts or sacramental practices, including those commanded by God in the Torah.

In other words, it never occurred to me that the uprising by the Maccabees was basically a very "un-modern" (some might say "orthodox" or even "fundamentalist") safekeeping of distinctive and rather illiberal Jewish customs: circumcising male children, tabooing the eating of pork, mandating a socially enforced no work day, and avoiding contact with non-Jewish outsiders in matters of marriage, education, friendship and social life.

It did not occur to me that the Syrian Greek outsiders and Hellenized Jewish insiders might have sought to use their power and wealth to eradicate those cultural practices because, rightly or wrongly, they judged them to be ignorant, offensive, superstitious, abusive or barbaric. I had not yet worked out a theory of the social order as a moral order in which the illiberality of a custom is not necessarily an index of its immorality.

I also doubt I reflected for very long on the moral complexities associated with the notion of apostasy or martyrdom, even though the story of the Jewish uprising begins when Mattathias, the spiritual leader of the Maccabees, full of zeal and righteous indignation, kills a fellow Jew because the apostate has made an offering to a Greek god. The biblical story about the Maccabees celebrates acts of piety and martyrdom fully comparable to things we witness in the vicinity of Jerusalem today; for example, the heroic mother who commits suicide and allows her children to be murdered rather than violate the Old Testament prohibition against eating pork. At the time I just admired the Maccabees' courage, sympathized with their cause, which was framed or spun as armed resistance to tyranny in defense of the right to the free exercise of religion, which for many Jews means the free exercise of their culture. And I identified with the insurgents as well.

Today I am a cultural anthropologist who has one foot in the Enlightenment and one foot in the romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment. It now seems to me that the distinction between the two philosophical territories in which I intellectually set my feet runs roughly parallel to the difference between the world view of the Hellenized Jews (and their powerful Syrian Greek allies) and the world view of the very un-Hellenized Maccabees who rose up in rebellion against them. Perhaps having a foot in both camps, or at least acknowledging the realities of each camp, is one of things it means to be a Jew.

I spend much of my time these days thinking about multiculturalism in a liberal democracy such as our own, while trying to define the domestic and international limits of tolerance for cultural diversity. I spend the rest of my time thinking about the tyranny associated with imperial (even if well-intended and righteously motivated) attempts at customs control, like the Royal Dutch Medical Association's campaign against male circumcision in Holland or the prohibitions against kosher slaughter and the traditional Jewish bris in Sweden. I try to document various forms of in-group resistance and non-resistance to the universalizing agendas of wealthy and powerful outsiders (e.g., "first world" human rights organizations in New York) and those cosmopolitan insiders (e.g., "third world" elites) who are allied with them. I study the reactions of mainstream populations living in pluralistic and tolerant "first world" nations (such as the United States or England) to migrants from the "third world" who bring with them cultural beliefs and practices that have not been customary (at least not recently) in those "first world" countries.

Sometimes these are beliefs and practices which those mainstream populations find strange, disturbing or abhorrent, such as polygamy, animal sacrifice, arranged marriage, or cosmetic genital surgeries. With respect to my own country I try to comprehend reactions to unfamiliar cultural practices by reference to existing ethical and legal frameworks within the United States. These are ethical and legal frameworks which have already provided some space for the toleration of such practices as "body art" (a brochure by that title distributed in the student health center at the University of Chicago includes sections on piercing, tattooing, scarification and branding), childhood male circumcision, gay marriage, animal slaughter, and numerous cosmetic surgeries, including most recently the increasingly popular body modifications known as labiaplasty or vaginal rejuvenation.

Thus over the next several months this blog will be addressing some tough questions about customs control in United States and Europe. Questions such as these: what would Thomas Jefferson have said about the creation of an Islamic Cultural Center and/or Mosque in lower Manhattan? Is it possible to be a dedicated liberal and robust cultural pluralist at the same time? What makes a cultural practice moral? What makes a cultural practice un-American? Along the way I will have a look at some controversial cultural artifacts and customs - the Burqa, the Bris, Halakha and Sharia courts, and even one cultural tradition about which divergent feelings of opprobrium and approbation run so deep that the practice can't even be named without controversy. The cultural custom that can't be named: Perhaps you think you know all about it already, but I suspect you will be a bit astonished by what there is to learn.

Most generally, the "Cultural Commentary" blog will be asking: Which culturally endorsed social and family life practices of the many peoples of the world ought to be on one's own un-American activities list for immigrants to the United States? Each of us keeps such a list, whether we acknowledge it or not, and even if our list contains relatively few items. What shape should such a list assume in a liberal democracy such as our own? Behind the happy face of Hanukkah one finds some pretty serious questions.