Jewish Journal

The Maccabees Were Not the Taliban.  Or Che Guevara.  Or the Irgun. Let’s Celebrate the Miracle.

by Rabbi Robin Podolsky

December 14, 2012 | 2:20 pm

 (For now, the only constructive comments I can think to offer about Connecticut are an acknowledgement of the horror and an offering of prayers.  Next week, after the close of this festival during which we’re forbidden to eulogize and after more facts have come to light, there may be something more to say.  Meanwhile, Josh Marshall gets us off to a worthy start.)

My childhood memories of Hanukah are all happy and uncomplicated; good things to eat, games and a licensed opportunity to play with fire.  Even a painless lesson in the futility of acquisitiveness. I remember an early year—I might have been in the first grade—when, at about the sixth night of presents, I received some kind of perfectly nice board game—something we might have got at the five-and-dime only wrapped in pretty paper--and was about as politely pleased as a six year old could be. Stuff was piling up that I hadn’t even played with yet.  My parents and I looked at each other and acknowledged that too much surfeit makes the whole game of giving and receiving kind of dull.

The sparkling candles, however, never grew dull, nor did the story of the Maccabees.  This was a story of the relatively weak beating the strong, of people standing up for their freedom and succeeding.  As I grew older, the story did not lose its resonance.  During my teenage years, nation after nation in the Third World fought back against colonialism, and it was easy to see in the Hanukah tale a foreshadowing of their struggles.

Later, as I matured and regained that connection to Judaism which had withered in my youth, the spiritual meaning of the holiday merged with the political.  It continues to strike me as significant that the Maccabees fought to worship as they believed right—fought for the life they knew—and in order to protect that life, wound up leaving familiar far behind.  They left Jerusalem for the country, where they fought a long guerilla war, only taking the city at the very last.  They left their homes for the Greek soldiers to raid, hiding out in the wilderness from where they launched their attacks.  It turned out that what made them who they were was not their familiar soil, but their allegiance to the One God. This is the story that we find in the Books of Maccabees—which we can read in the Catholic Apocrypha, but not in our own Tanakh.

Our Rabbis, in legislating observance of Hanukah, have nothing to say about a victory over imperialism.  Instead, in Tractate Shabbat, we learn about the miracle of oil; how when the Temple in Jerusalem was finally retaken and cleansed, there was only sufficient oil for one night’s lighting of the ner tamid, but the lamp stayed lit for 8 days.  Like the story of Pesach in the traditional Haggadah, this approach to Hanukah links our victory to our connection to the Holy One, refusing any disconnect between that link and the efficacy of human agency.

Eventually, I began to understand our Rabbis’ approach to the holiday as a celebration of a miraculous deliverance at the hand of God rather than as a commemoration of military might.  Of course our Rabbis, under the ruthless Roman yoke in Eretz Yisrael and, later, under the relatively benign protection of the Persian Empire in Bavel, had practical reasons to demur from celebrating political rebellion.

But there’s more to it than that.  Our Rabbis understood the Maccabean story less as a fight for Judean political sovereignty and more as a crucial tipping point in the construction of what would become the Judaism-as-religion that we have inherited.  They incorporated the holiday into our spiritual heritage, a candle that would light our way no matter where the Diaspora might take us.

There is an historical basis for their understanding.  Antiochus Epiphanes, the tyrant who tried to impose Greek worship on the Judeans/proto-Jews, was a Seleucid, a successor to Alexander the Great.  When Alexander arrived at Jerusalem, he was flattered, he was given his tribute/protection money—and he left the Temple alone.  It was when the Seleucids attempted to force their way of worship onto the Hebrews that everything exploded.  The discovery of this bottom line was, I believe, a key moment in Jewish self-understanding, one of those foundational events that enabled the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism out of the ashes of our Temple when it fell.

Rabbi John Rosove, a colleague on this site, argues convincingly that the Maccabean victory represents the resolution of a Jewish civil war, of traditionalists and moderates versus extreme Hellenizers.  The divisions he describes are real; however, as Shaye Cohen reminds us in From the Maccabees to the Mishnah (WJK, 2006) we can parse the nuances even further.  All Jews in the antique period lived in a Hellenistic milieu—Greek was the language of commerce, material and intellectual, in a way not dissimilar to how English functions today.  The question facing all Mediterranean and West Asian peoples was how to integrate the global culture of their day with their own unique heritage.  And—crucially—all of this was happening in the context of imperial military domination.

There is nothing unique about foreign occupiers seeking and finding alliances with the upper classes of the peoples they wish to dominate.  Nor is it unusual when oppression and military might are intertwined with more welcome contributions.  It is true that Alexandrian emperors brought more than idols to the land of Israel.  They brought international trade, great theater and art and a complex philosophical tradition with which Judaism would interact for centuries to its enrichment; philosophical material that, one might argue, even found its way into our Tanakh and that helped to shape the dialectical discourse of our rabbis, along with an urbane salon tradition on which parts of our Pesach seder are modeled in form, although certainly not in content.  But they tried to tell us what to do in our own temple and that was not allowed to stand.

According to Cohen, the Maccabees were not (as it has become fashionable to portray them) a bunch of anti-urban reactionaries hiding out from progress.  Neither were they romantic revolutionaries seeking a return to some former, pure way of life.  They were, in my opinion, legitimate freedom fighters doing what many freedom fighters do—drawing on their own traditions and also appropriating material from the very culture they were fighting—declaring holidays on their own authority, fighting on Shabbat, etc.—in order to achieve independence.

Sadly but not shockingly, the Hasmonean dynasty launched by the Maccabees turned out to be as corrupt and decadent as everything it sought to replace.  They even turned aggressively on their neighbors, seeking to convert others to Judaism by force, much as the Seleucids had attempted to convert the Jews.  Contemporary Zionists who paint the Maccabees as entirely positive role models might want to remember this, especially in the context of current events.  How is the “stubbornness” of Palestinians who insist on a sovereign state so different from that of our ancestors?  How to make sure we don't switch roles in the drama?

As Rabbi Rosove observes, Hanukah has become, like Pesach, a holiday that sparks debate over its meaning and what it says about who we are.  In other words, Hanukah is more Jewish than ever.   Season’s blessings to all.

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Rabbi Robin Podolsky is an Educator at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock.  Before she became a rabbi, she worked as a press secretary to an elected official, a...

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