A religion made for take-out. A story for Chanukah.
Here is a great multitude encamped around a small object. They protect it and draw comfort from it. The object is a box with nothing in it.
The box with nothing in it represents the God of these people, a no-thing God. Not a man, not a fish, not a cow, only No Thing. They say he made the universe, bound both physical and moral laws into it, selected them for a special mission and continues to author the world's history. Even they sometimes wonder how Nothing could do so much.
Long ago, the people wandered in a wilderness and carried the Box of No-Thing with them. Later, when they conquered and settled in their land, the Box of No-Thing moved from place to place among them. Occasionally it was captured by enemy nations, forcing the People of No-Thing to fight to bring it back.
Still later, their king built an elaborate House in his capital for the Box of No-Thing, and it remained there. And over the centuries, something extraordinary came to pass, something that No-Thing had said he most desired: the complex message encapsulated in the Box of No-Thing - a message about righteous living and loving community that was sometimes self-evident, sometimes odd, sometimes irrational - came to reside increasingly also in the hearts and minds of the people, so that even exile and the destruction of No-Thing's House and Box could not erase it.
And now we come to the time of the first Chanukah, which marks the sharp, fertile and dangerous collision, well over two millennia ago, between the People of No-Thing and another great people carrying another message.
The Hellenistic culture of the Syrian masters was clearly a seductive one. To start, imperialists always have an advantage: their conquest itself seems to prove their superiority. The masters also offered to the conquered great possibilities for personal advancement and access to the larger arena of "world culture." Almost by definition, Hellenism scorned the poor culture of the Jews, with their insular God-in-a-Box who insisted on distinctions, rules and separations as a path toward holiness.
Their rulers, gentiles as well as cooperative Jews, applauded themselves for raising the consciousness of these provincials.
Living under a new law, the People of No-Thing learned to think a new way. Some of the changes wrought in national life seemed reasonable to many; "progress" and "living in the modern world" exert a pull of their own. We are told that, at the extremes, there were Jews who underwent surgical reversals of their circumcisions, so they could participate in naked athletic events without being scorned as barbarians by the conquerors. There were, in short, Jews who wanted to be Greeks.
No doubt, the cultural war cut through many individual families, as children and parents, uncles and in-laws developed differing stances toward the Hellenistic culture, or different strategies for swimming in it. But there was resistance as well, fierce enough that the conquerors and those who cooperated with them ultimately found it necessary to ban the essential parts of No-Thing's religion, which were interfering with progress and modernization - Sabbath, holidays and circumcision in particular.
You are what you think. The work of the people loyal to No-Thing became, then as now, to figure out what elements of the culture of the Other could be accepted and transformed and what must be rejected as finally incompatible with the message of No-Thing. At what point could one say that another Jew had passed some invisible line and separated himself from community and tradition? By serving the Hellenist government? By accepting a syncretistic religion mixing No-Thing and Zeus? By marrying one of the conquerors? By living completely like one?
The simple story passed down to us - that the conqueror broke into the House of No-Thing, tore down all the partitions that defined No-Thing's peculiar insistence on boundaries and separations - is only the metaphor of the violence sowed by the conqueror in Jewish hearts and minds, which were, after all, No-Thing's ultimate sanctuary. That the conquerors erected a statue of the Syrian king - a thing - in No-Thing's House and sacrificed pigs there is merely a symbol of the more generalized inner disturbance in the nation's mind.
The story recounts that the soldiers of the Greeks came to a small town, Modi'in, and insisted that the inhabitants pledge their fealty to the king and culture of the conquerors - that they bow down in some final, defining way. In other towns, perhaps Jews obeyed. But here, someone finally said, Enough!, sparking a revolt against the conqueror and a civil war among the Jews.
That the revolt succeeded is the first miracle of Chanukah. We mark it on the first day of the holiday, relearning that some miracles happen in ordinary time, for reasons that even the rationalist, Greek-trained mind can understand.
Then comes the larger miracle of the burning of the oil, which tells the same story in spiritual, non-rational terms.
For just as the story of the original defilement of No-Thing's House is an allegory of the inner confusion of the people, the miracle of the oil, too, is merely an expression of what had already occurred: A people whose understanding of itself and its mission was flickering found the strength, the focus and the clarity to cast off darkness and rediscover within itself the light that lasts forever. That is, the miracle of the oil, a detail of ritual in the House of No-Thing, came afterwards as a corroboration for the people of what they had already experienced.
May it happen to us, too.