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Civil War And Civil Religion

The conjunction of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving struck me, initially, the way it struck most people: as an opportunity to have latkes and turkey together, and to use cranberry-apple sauce two ways; and as a more fortuitous juxtaposition than Hanukkah and Christmas. Hanukkah, after all, is supposed to be a fairly minor holiday, and neither it nor Christmas particularly benefits from the competition. And Hanukkah is a holiday of thanksgiving: it commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the victory by the Hasmoneans in their war against Antiochus IV, and expresses gratitude at the implicit divine favor shown on the victors in that they were able to complete the rededication even though there appeared to be insufficient pure oil to keep the flame burning. (And, in the background, there’s gratitude for the arrival of the winter rains even though the festival of Tabernacles could not be observed at the proper time a couple of months earlier, and with the appropriate sacrifices, due to the pollution of the Temple and the ongoing civil war.)

But the more I thought about it, other links between the two holidays began to assert themselves in interesting ways. Specifically, both holidays relate to civil wars – and to civil religion as a means of establishing national unity.

President Lincoln formalized America’s Thanksgiving in 1863, while our great civil war still raged at its bloodiest. Lincoln’s proclamation explicitly established the holiday as a national one, to be observed solemnly and reverently, “with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” It also explicitly associated divine providence with the continued flourishing of the Union even under the stress of civil war: the growth of population, the spread of settlement, the abundance of crops, etc. Framed as the giving of thanks, it was also a political prophecy: the Union would prevail, and ultimately we’d all be celebrating Thanksgiving together.

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving wasn’t a secular holiday exactly, but it was an ecumenical and theologically vague one. It can be thought of as a template of “civil religion,” the association of the nation with a kind of religious aura untethered to any particular theology.

Hanukkah is far more particularist in its origins – but it’s also about the establishment (or reestablishment) of a civic religion. Hanukkah originated as a celebration of victory at the end of a civil war – and a successful rebellion against a foreign empire. The war began as a contest for power between a Hellenizing pro-Seleucid party and an anti-Hellenist, pro-Egyptian party among the Judeans. The Hellenizers invited in Antiochus IV to put down their enemies, and Antiochus conducted an atypically harsh campaign against the religious observances of the traditionalists as part of the war effort, including turning the Jerusalem Temple into a temple of Zeus. This latter can be readily understood as an effort to establish unity with the rest of the Seleucid domains, but it backfired and provoked more furious resistance by the anti-Hellenizing party, the Hasmoneans, led by Judah Maccabee.

Alongside dynastic and economic motivations for the Judean civil war, in other words, there was a battle over communal particularism – and, more specifically, whether the national symbol, the Temple of Jerusalem, would have a particularistic orientation or would follow the norms of the larger Hellenistic world.

Both holidays evolved substantially from their origins, however. As early as the writing of the Mishnah, Hanukkah was treated as problematic by the rabbis. There was a clear discomfort, in the wake of the catastrophically failed Bar Kochba revolt, to celebrate a holiday of national prowess and self-assertion. This is one reason why the “miracle of the oil” began to take center stage. But even that observance becomes ironic if you consider that the menorah is a recollection of the rededication of a Temple that, by this point, had been obliterated by the victorious Roman armies. By the time you get down to medieval and modern times, the symbol of the holiday – and of the divine “great miracle” that happened “there” – is the dreidl, a game of chance. Its observance is almost entirely private, and is far more common than other, theoretically more important holidays – and, though nominally a celebration of particularism, it’s the holiday that is most commonly shared across communal boundaries (and in multi-religious homes).

Thanksgiving, meanwhile, has largely ceased to be a civic holiday. Instead, it has been privatized to paradigmatic family holiday, a day when far-flung relatives get together to roast a sacrificial bird and observe a ritual contest of strength and skill, and give thanks for their private plenitude. It may have more or less religious content depending on the observance of the home in question – but the primary civic ritual is the pardoning of the sacrificial bird, an act which symbolizes the god-like powers over life and death accruing to the Executive, powers which few civilians care to dwell on at any length.

There’s a lesson here about the limits of that executive power. Kings, High Priests and Presidents may have the power of life and death, as well as the power to create holidays to celebrate their victories. But the meanings of their inaugurations are beyond their control, and get re-written to conform to the actual contours of their celebrants lives – and to change as those lives change. When we excavate it, much of religion turns out to be civic in origin, and much civic ritual, forged in times of civic stress, thereby acquires (or is formally invested with) religious aura. But when those particular stresses pass, and the generations who were shaped by them are gathered unto their ancestors, the rituals, if they are to endure, inevitably get re-invested with new significance that would strike our forebears as strange indeed.

And we should give thanks for that, as well, because that process is how both the living and the dead get to live comfortably if confusedly together.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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