In 1950, “Truth or Consequences,” which had been on radio since 1940, made its TV debut. It had a four-year run on CBS but was made famous during its 22 years on NBC hosted by Bob Barker. Yes, that Bob Barker, who later transitioned to “The Price is Right.”
The format was simple: contestants had about two seconds to answer a trivia question (usually an off-the-wall question few could answer) before Beulah the Buzzer sounded. If the contestant could not answer the “truth” portion, there would be “consequences,” usually a zany and embarrassing stunt.
It was not uncommon for contestants to fail the first part to insure that they were able to perform the stunt. What remains as a memory about this show is that the prizes, if there were any, were unimportant. Individuals played the game for fun, not for monetary reward.
The second memory is the title. Truth, or the lack of truth, has consequences. If we were in the United States it would be easy to segue into a consideration of the role of truth, half-truths and messaged truths that are so much a part of the American political scene. Our Canadian politicians are not immune from shading the truth, but that dynamic has not become part of our political culture, yet. But we Jews, well that is another matter. Playing fast and loose with truth was not unknown to our ancestors. The story of Chanukah is a glaring example of this.
The two Books of the Maccabees contain detailed accounts of the battles Judah Maccabee and his brothers fought for the liberation of Judea from foreign domination. These books include the earliest references to the story of Chanukah and the rededication of the Temple, in addition to the famous story of Hannah and her seven sons. They are the most contemporaneous eyewitness accounts we have of the events, yet they are not included in the Tanach. They were relegated to the collection of books known as the Apocrypha.
The two books, one written in Hebrew in Judea, one written in Koine Greek, probably in Alexandria, tell us of the brave Judah and “his merry men.” They tell of his exploits. They tell us of his eventual successes and his rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. What they don’t tells us about is an eight-day miracle. The rabbis of the Talmud regale us with that story, some 600 years after the event. The Gemara, in tractate Shabbat, 21b, tells us about the lighting of the candles and adds the familiar story about the one-day supply oil that burned for eight days.
Historians and rabbinic scholars can debate why the Books of Maccabees were excluded from the sacred canon. But what is not debatable is that there were consequences to the decision to “message the truth.” For nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people assumed a theological posture which commanded them to wait for Divine intervention when faced with the events of history. They were instructed both overtly and covertly that human resistance and human aggressive behaviour in response to vicious and brutal overlords was not the Divine wish. The accepted version of Chanukah had the impact of creating a more passive form of resistance than that of Judith, another marginalized story of heroism, or the Maccabees. It is not too difficult to see this paradigm at work in the story of Purim. Faced with his people’s destruction, Mordechai does not lead a Maccabean response, he instructs Esther to use her feminine wiles in the pursuit of salvation.
It was not until the modern Zionist movement asserted the rights of downtrodden Jews to act in their own right that the historical consequences of Chanukah were challenged. Now, of course, we endure further consequences of our playing with the truth. Our beloved Israel has become not simply the defenders of our right to national existence, but an aggressor in pursuit of self-preservation.
The game show intended the consequences of failed truth to be zany or comedic acts in the name of fun. Unfortunately, today, the consequences of failed truth are much more consequential than comedic.
As we begin our celebrations of Chanukah, perhaps there is value in balancing the two forms of truth: the truth of history and the truth of the rabbis. Both are needed to confront the ongoing battles for Jewish survival.