By Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis
Once upon a time there were three little porcupines who lived in the forest. Their names were Ploni, Almoni, and Horace, and they were very Jewishly educated porcupines indeed.
One day, as Almoni was making his way along his favorite forest path, humming “I Had a Little Dreidl” to himself and practicing his best Chanukah dance, he pirouetted directly into Ploni, who was walking along with his head down, looking most dejected. The two porcupines fell in a heap, and it was only by good fortune that neither of them was stabbed by the other’s quills.
“Goodness, Ploni!” exclaimed Almoni, as he extracted himself from under Ploni’s tail. “I’m sorry I knocked you down. I’m just so excited that Chanukah is coming that I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
“Oh, Almoni,” sighed Ploni. “I guess I don’t mind being knocked over—we’re already so near to the ground as it is that there isn’t very far to go. If only you wouldn’t bounce all over like that. Porcupines aren’t supposed to dance, and all your spinning makes me dizzy.”
“But Ploni,” said Almoni, practically prancing with glee. “Chanukah is almost here. It’s the holiday of religious freedom! It’s the holiday of heroes! It’s about how a small group of committed Jews defeated the entire Syrian-Greek army, just so they could retain their Jewish identity! If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here at all. Hooray for the Maccabees!” He launched into a rendition of “Who Can Retell,” performing a cartwheel on the name “Maccabaeus,” in honor of Judah and his heroic family.
Ploni looked at his friend in dismay and disbelief. “How can you even sing that?” he asked. “Don’t you know that the Maccabees weren’t such likeable people? They weren’t heroes at all! They were fanatics! Zealots! And, what’s more, they were rude!”
Almoni, who by then was practicing the kick-ball-change part of his dance, stopped in his tracks. “Why, Ploni!” he gasped. “What ever do you mean?”
“I’m sorry to shock you, Almoni,” said Ploni, “but the Book of Maccabees shows that the Maccabees and their followers behaved quite badly. It’s true that they didn’t want to live under Syrian-Greek rule and that they fought for their rights as Jews, but they did a whole lot more than that! They so hated the idea of anyone acting Greek in any way that they even turned their violence against Jews who had adopted Hellenistic customs. If they lived in our day, they would hate American Jews who do American things like learning math or wearing blue jeans or voting for government. They were the ultimate anti-assimilationists: they didn’t like anyone who wasn’t just like them or Jewish in just their way!”
“But Ploni,” argued Almoni. “When I celebrate Chanukah, I am celebrating a holiday that frowns upon the very kind of narrow-minded religious nationalism that you’re talking about. No wonder the Book of Maccabees didn’t make it into the Jewish canon. The ancient rabbis understood that the Maccabees weren’t great examples in person, but that the freedom they won for the Jewish people allowed Judaism to flourish and grow. We should be grateful for what the Maccabees have come to represent! Go put that silly book about them in your hat!” (As you can see, these were indeed remarkably well-educated porcupines, though, truth be told—despite what Almoni said—they did not actually wear hats.)
The two friends continued to argue, each fervently defending his own side:
“The Maccabees were hateful!”
“The Maccabees were heroes!”
“They were religiously intolerant!”
“They paved the way for religious tolerance everywhere!”
“They thought Judaism should survive in a vacuum!”
“They wanted to define Judaism’s boundaries so that no one would go too far!”
“In their zealotry they even hated other Jews!”
“Because of their enthusiasm, the Jewish people was able to survive!”
On and on they went, each becoming more and more distressed, each growing to resent the other more and more. Luckily (perhaps it was even a Chanukah miracle), at that moment, who should come along but Horace, Ploni and Almoni’s good friend, who happened to be carrying two presents, each wrapped with blue paper and tied with a silver bow.
“Hello, Ploni and Almoni,” Horace greeted them. “I’m so glad I ran into you. I was just on my way to bring you your Chanukah gifts.”
“Oh, Horace!” cried Almoni. “You’ll back me up! Tell Ploni that the Maccabees were heroes who saved Judaism!”
“Oh, Horace!” cried Ploni. “You’ll back me up! Tell Almoni that the Maccabees were fanatics whose legacy would do us all in!”
“Ploni,” Horace said. “Almoni. I will back you both up! As is the way in most Jewish arguments—even among porcupines—you are both right.”
His friends looked at him in astonishment. They stopped arguing and sat down to listen to him with rapt attention. Horace went on: “You see, my good friends, the Maccabees represented the best and worst of Jewish particularism, the belief that Jews and Judaism will survive only if we stick together and take care of our own. They kept us going by fighting against the forces that threatened us—both the hatred from without and the desire to assimilate from within. Ultimately, what they did allowed enough safety and security for Jews who we were able, in the best of times, to adopt a position of universalism: openly mingling with the cultures surrounding them, learning from them, and creating truly Jewish ways of life in whatever lands we have found ourselves. Without those other cultures, we wouldn’t have Passover seders or Chanukah presents or democracy! Without our adaptability we wouldn’t have survived, but without our commitment to Judaism itself, we wouldn’t have lasted to have the strong Jewish porcupine identity that we do.”
“Oh, Horace,” cried Ploni and Almoni in unison. “That was the best Chanukah story we’ve ever heard. Thank goodness for particularism and universalism! Thank goodness for the Maccabees, and thank goodness that we never have to meet them in their scary zealotry! Let’s go light some candles.”
And so they did. And they lived happily ever after—at least until Purim… but that’s another story.
Jordi Schuster Battis is the rabbi of Temple Shir Hadash in Westford, MA. She serves as the Pedagogic Coach to the Jewish Learning Guides for Mayim: The Elementary Learning Community at Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, and works as an educator and consultant in the Boston Jewish community. She lives in Natick, MA, with her husband, Seth, and son, Gershom, and has an affinity for Jewishly knowledgeable woodland creatures.