My glorious Maccabees? — Part 3 of 3

When thinking about history, I reflexively picture myself in one camp or another. If I’m reading about 19th century New England, I wonder if I would have been a radical abolitionist or someone who said, “yes, slavery is wrong but give the South time to come to its senses.” When I think about Germany in the 1930s, I wonder if I would have had the foresight to get my family out or if I would have counted on things only getting so bad and no worse. 

Mattathias, father of the Maccabee brothers, killing an apostate - from a 19th century Christian Bible woodcut by Gustave Dore

With the Chanukah story, I’ve always pictured myself with the Maccabees. Who wouldn’t? They were common folks who rose up against tyranny and fought for religious freedom. (Just ask Howard Fast!) They were underdogs against a cruel empire. As guerrilla fighters, they couldn’t have won without broad support from the people, which implies they were just, wise, compassionate. 

Or were they? 

This fall, for an adult ed class on Jewish history at my temple, we read parts of Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. And Johnson paints a more complex picture: 

The Maccabean revolt grew at least partially out of tensions within the Judaean community over Hellenization – disagreement among Jews themselves over how much to adapt to Greek culture. 

Diaspora Jews of that time learned and spoke Greek, often using a Hellenic name for business and a Hebrew name at home. In Judaea, meanwhile, some Jews retreated from Greek influence and modern life to form desert sects such as the Essenes. Others – particularly the wealthy, urban, and educated — embraced Greek culture and its rational, universalistic philosophy. 

Johnson writes that these reformist Jews: 

“re-read the historical scriptures and tried to deprovincialize them. Were not Abraham and Moses… great citizens of the world? They embarked on the first Biblical criticism: the Law, as now written, was not very old and certainly did not go back to Moses. They argued that the original laws were far more universalistic… The reformers found the Torah full of fables and impossible demands and prohibitions…. (They) did not want to abolish the Law completely but to purge it of those elements which forbade participation in Greek culture… and reduce it to its ethical core, so universalizing it.”

Antiochus, the Syrian king who spurred the Maccabee revolt, didn’t act alone.  He had supporters among the urban pro-Hellenic Jews. But Johnson argues that the pro-Hellenists erred in trying to impose “reform from above.”  They alienated the masses of poor rural Jews, who became the Maccabees’ support base.

So the rebellion that we now celebrate with Chanukah targeted not just a brutal Syrian occupier but internal Jewish reformers. And the Maccabees’ victory was a defeat not only of extreme Hellenization, but also of moderate reform. 

Johnson writes:

“The zeal and intensity of the (reformers’) assault on the Law aroused a corresponding zeal for the Law, narrowing the vision of the Jewish leadership and pushing ever more deeply into a Torah-centered religion. With their failure, the reformers discredited the notion of reform itself, or even any discussion of the nature and direction of the Jewish religion. Such talk was henceforth denounced in all the official texts as nothing less than total apostasy and collaboration with the foreign oppression, so that it became difficult for moderates of any kind… to get a hearing.”

Perhaps the Maccabees were for freedom of religion in the same way that the Pilgrim fathers of the Massachusetts Bay colony were — for themselves.

Not for anyone else.

In any case, the war launched by Judah and his brothers lasted on and off for 34 years, eventually leading to a dynasty of rulers descended from the Maccabees.

Johnson describes the Maccabees’ heirs as “petty despots.”  They allied themselves with the Sadducee faction within Judaism, which believed in a literal and unchanging interpretation of the writings of Torah — what today we would call fundamentalism.

Simon Maccabee’s third son, John Hyrcanus, “accepted as literal truth that the whole of Palestine was the divine inheritance of the Jewish nation, and that it was not merely his duty but his right to conquer it.”  To do this, he created the first mercenary army in Jewish history, pillaged and burned cities, and gave residents of non-Jewish areas a choice of conversion, expulsion or death.

The Maccabees, Johnson writes, were “brave, desperate, fanatical, strong-minded and violent.”

Would I really have been a Maccabee? 

Or might I have been one of those urban, reformist Jews – attracted to Greek culture, yearning to feel part of a broad pan-Mediterranean civilization, looking at the Torah as a historical document and focusing on the universal aspect of its values?

 That does sound a lot like me. Or like most of modern Reform and secular Judaism, in fact.

 And the Maccabees sound almost, eerily, like….. the Taliban???


Note: Want more historical controversy over the Maccabees and the meaning of Chanukah? Thanks to Mary M. for pointing out this online essay. Be sure to read the full response by Rabbi Bruce Kahn in the comments section.

And for a really excellent summary and analysis of all the different interpretations of Chanukah and the Maccabees, check out this blog post by William Berkson on the Reform Judaism web site. Boy, if I’d seen this earlier, I could have skipped writing my own three blog posts and spent the time grating more latkes.  :-)

Enough yakking about history -- enjoy the latkes! / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: