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Black Israelites and the meaning of Chanukah

Happy Hanukkah from OUP! This year we’re celebrating with a series of eight books celebrating Jewish history and culture over the eight nights of Hanukkah. As your menorah candles burn bright, take this opportunity to honour both the endurance of the Maccabees and the Jewish people.

This blog post is written by Daniel Friedmann, the former Israeli Minister of Justice and the author of The Purse and the Sword: The Trials of Israel’s Legal Revolution. He explores the paradox of the Israeli nationality law.

The story that most Jewish children learn about the holiday of Chanukah is that it commemorates the Jews’ victory over foreign invaders and their sullying cultural influences. Around 200 B.C.E., Judea was the rope in a tug of war between two stronger powers: the Ptolemic dynasty of Egypt and the Seleucid Empire of Syria. The Seleucids, led by the kings Antiochus III & IV, won when Antiochus invaded Judea in 175 B.C.E. But in 170 B.C.E. the Jews who favored Egypt took control from the camp that favored Syria. According to the Roman historian Flavius Josephus, Antiochus IV invaded Judea a second time, and not only slaughtered many Jews but also defiled the Temple in Jerusalem, offering swine as sacrifice to pagan gods on its altar.

Cue the heroes: the Maccabees (whose name means “Hammer”), the original Mattisyahu, and his seven sons, including Judah. Together they defeated the forces of King Antiochus and cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem of all of its Seleucid-introduced impurities. A small amount of oil that was enough to last for a single day lasted for eight instead, and with this somewhat pedestrian miracle the festival of Chanukah was born.

It was a miracle whose veracity has been questioned since the Middle Ages, and contemporary scholars have complicated the story quite a bit. The real struggle, they tell us, was not so much between Jews and foreign invaders, but a civil war between the Jews who followed Greek ways and those Maccabean Jews who opposed them.

In other words, the story of Chanukah at its heart is a story of a struggle of a small people torn between stronger nations with powerful cultures. We focus on the symbolic act of purification and cleansing, but we tend to obfuscate the larger cultural terrain. Ancient Jews were fighting not just against foreigners but amongst themselves over whose culture to adapt and to what degree. Cultural adaptations came from within, not just from without.

There may have been a military victory over Syria’s army and the Hellenizing Jews, but the Jews of ancient Palestine were already deeply and inextricably linked to the nations and the cultures of their region. That is, they were not just multicultural (of many discrete cultures) or transcultural (crossing cultural borders); they were polycultural. Their cultural diversity already was internalized and they patched their cultures together based on overlapping similarities, not just warring differences.

So too with today’s Black Israelites, people who believe that the ancient Israelites were Black and that contemporary Black people are their descendants. People of many different faiths have been Black Israelites. In the 1890s there was a wave of Black Israelite churches that came out of the Holiness movement. At the turn of the twentieth century, Anglo-Israelite beliefs helped inspire the Pentecostal movement, the most numerous new religious movement of the twentieth century. During the Harlem Renaissance, Black Israelite beliefs became popular among some who practiced forms of rabbinic Judaism, and the following decade the belief took root in Black Islam and in Jamaican Rastafarianism. During the organizing and militancy of the long 1960s the ideology found supporters among patriarchal and macho advocates of Hebrew Israelite faiths. A tiny fragment of the Hebrew Israelites will yell at passersby on New York street corners to this day, and yell at each other in attempts to purify their practice from any of the contamination of rabbinic Judaism.

But what goes unnoticed is that each of these religions continue to this day. Moreover, each of them change, just as the individuals within them change in their religious practice, growing more or less observant, or moving from one group to the other. It helps to think of these religious waves not as groups or sects but as movements — constantly in the process of becoming. Religious changes also happen inter-generationally, not just within the life of individuals. Many of the children of Black Jews have become more, not less religious. Gradually, over time, Black Jews have become more, not less halachic. The followers of the biggest portion of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, one of the original Holiness groups, now believe that their founding prophet only used the word “Christ” as a necessary expedient, and practice their own unique form of Judaism. Their music has been passed down “mouth to ear” for over a  century, and is some of the most beautiful choral music not just among American Jews, but in American music, period.

Black Israelites teach us that cultures are really polycultural. They are formed not by heated battles between warring binaries, but by acts of collage that emphasize overlapping similarities between dozens of inputs, many of which are already internalized within. This is a more helpful view than picturing cultural formation as the resolution of antagonism between holistic and hostile camps coming from without.

Returning to the story of Chanukah, we can understand history better by focusing not on the moment of conquest and purification but on all the cultures that Jews of Josephus’ day shared with their neighbors, just as we can understand American culture today and in the past by understanding how continuous cultural flows have created polycultures and defied efforts to categorize, rank, or purify. I like it that way.

Featured Image credit: Jewish Hanukkah Festival by Saildancer. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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