First, a cautionary note to this cautionary tale: Parallels from ancient times with more contemporary events and social categories are inexact. A version of this article was published in several Jewish community weeklies six years ago. Since that time, I could add a point that would disrupt its thematic flow somewhat, but bears considering: the anti-Hasmonean faction, which I refer to in quotes as “liberal,” was also a wealthy cultural elite that did battle with the lower classes who were championed by the Hasmoneans (or Maccabees). — R. Seliger
History is of necessity an interpretive process, and these interpretations often spawn self-serving myths. National myths are not usually complete fabrications, but they tend to romanticize and sanitize real events.
The traditional Hanukkah story serves the Jewish people as a source of pride and a mobilizing image for Zionism. We are taught that a small army of freedom fighters, the Maccabees, led by the heroic priestly family of Mattathias and his seven sons, successfully resisted the cruel pagan tyranny of the ancient Greco-Syrian Seleucid dynasty. The Maccabees’ victory is celebrated in symbol and ritual by lighting the menorah, commemorating the divine miracle of a one-day’s supply of oil lasting a full eight days during the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
We are usually not taught the far more complex reality that the Maccabean war of liberation was also a civil war between rural “fundamentalist” religionists of the old order and the more educated and cosmopolitan Hellenized Jews of the city, who voluntarily and eagerly embraced the “liberal” Greek culture of the Syrian empire. The Maccabees surely killed many of these “liberal” Jews in their struggle.
We are also not taught that a short time after the Maccabees’ triumph in Jerusalem, a Syrian army returned in overwhelming strength, laid siege to Jerusalem, and were at the point of utterly defeating the Maccabees when an extraneous threat to the imperial capital of Antioch by a dynastic rival suddenly caused the Syrians to withdraw.
What is more surprising and ironic is that the Hasmonean family— the Maccabees’ ruling dynasty— within one generation of the victory for Jewish values over Hellenism, was taking Greek names, speaking Greek and transforming Judea into a Jewish Hellenistic kingdom! These rulers alienated the masses of the Jewish people by extreme acts of cruelty and debauchery, e.g., crucifying their enemies at royal banquets and slaughtering protesters in great numbers. Their military prowess ultimately undermined their rule, as conquered peoples were converted to Judaism by the sword; Herod emerged from one such Judaized people to marry his way into the Hasmonean clan and murder them into extinction.
Herod’s disastrously corrupt reign led to Judea’s disintegration as an independent state and its domination by Rome. Our ancestors’ understandable but evidently unwise impatience with the Roman yoke led to the heroic but doomed rebellions which resulted in the catastrophic exile from Zion.
Nevertheless, the Maccabees were brave and valiant warriors who did in fact win great victories over a powerful and authoritarian foreign enemy. This is the picture of Hanukkah which is revered in Jewish and Israeli tradition. But to take this snapshot in time as the whole picture is to accept a one-dimensional myth. For some of the reasons mentioned, Rabbinic Judaism accorded Hanukkah a minor religious status.
When considered within its historic context of bloody Jewish civil wars and despotic rule, both imbedded within the Hanukkah story itself and in the eventual downfall of Judea within its wake, Hanukkah may provide as much a warning to us today, as a cause for celebration. [Eleven] years after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Hanukkah cautions us on the dangers of fratricidal hatred, of demonizing our political foes, and of failing to understand the need at times for compromise and accommodation.
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