VBT: Devil in the Details
Toward Another Diaspora Manifesto

On desecration and rededication

Aziz at City of Brass wrote an interesting post recently, reflecting on Jeanne's reaction  to a photo of American soldiers hanging out in a mosque after taking possession of it. When Jeanne looks at that picture, she sees desecration. Aziz argues -- I think quite compellingly -- that the real desecration was the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr using the mosque for violent means, and says it was desecrated long before the American soldiers moved in. All of this is much on my mind as we approach the end of Chanukah, which commemorates the purification of the Temple from its desecration at the hands of the Syrian empire in days of old.

Mobius suggested recently that the Iraqi insurgents are today's Maccabees. Many commentors disagreed. His critics have a point that the analogy has flaws; the Syrians, tradition teaches us, outlawed Judaism and used the Temple for pagan sacrifices. American forces in Iraq aren't forbidding the practice of Islam, nor are they converting mosques into temples of consumerism (or whatever our modern-day analogue to pagan sacrifices would be).

Then again, the comparison has some metaphorical power. A lot of people regard the American troops in Iraq as occupiers and/or as representatives of an immoral Western empire. And while it's more comfortable for me to think of the Maccabbees as freedom fighters who led a revolution to preserve religious freedom, it's also possible to read them as fanatics who preferred warfare (and the possibility of martyrdom) to assimilation.

Regardless of where one comes down on these particular comparisons, the process of examining them can be fruitful. I think it's important to ask hard questions about our stories, and to seek resonance between those stories and contemporary life. I'm not saying we need to saddle children with tough questions about the nature of desecration; for kids, Chanukah revolves around candles, latkes, presents, and songs, and that's as it should be. But as one matures and develops a sense of oneself as part of a larger whole, holidays can become terrific opportunities for this kind of exploration.

In this case, I think we can learn something from considering how the presence of American soldiers with machine guns in a mosque might feel to Iraqis, and also from considering Aziz's notion that the real desecration happened when al-Sadr used a house of prayer for his own purposes. And this contemplation, in turn, can enrich our understanding of what our holiday means.

The prophetic tradition in Judaism has always taught that Judaism should be a force for positive social change. To me, that suggests that a Chanukah celebration which doesn't spur political consciousness lacks something. Studying the story of our people's liberation and our Temple's rededication should impel us to see who is oppressed and what holy places have been made impure in our own time.