October 22, 2019

Why Do People Still Ask if the Maccabees Were Good OR Bad? Let’s Celebrate the Questions!

So I’m getting kind of irritated with what passes for the “sophisticated” Hanukkah discussion: were the Maccabees “religious zealots” or “freedom fighters?” Was the war against the Seleucids a revolution or a civil war? (I think the answers are neither/both.) (Also, here is a link to an earlier column I wrote about these issues in greater detail and with more about my evolving personal perspective.)

First of all, I think we can say in safety that the Maccabees were not “like” the Taliban or “like” us. Cause they lived centuries before either of those phenomena, right? (Although I’m pretty sure that, actually, I would rather have had dinner with the House of Mattathias than with some priest named Jason.) But they did face dilemmas that 21st Century people might recognize. The land of Judea was certainly invaded and conquered by the Seleucid Greeks, a section of the diadochi who inherited part of Alexander “the Great’s” territory acquired through war. And here’s a clue: Alexander himself had come and gone through the land, had been welcomed, paid off and had some nice things said about him. He did demand allegiance and treasure. He did not try to tell the people what to do in their own Temple. Clearly, some bottom line was breached by Alexander’s successors having to do with the Judean people’s stubborn allegiance to the One God. Is this marker of identity something they invented or some heritage they acknowledged? Probably both–the Maccabean wars helped to shape the evolution of what would become Judaism, a tradition of praxis–of irremissible ways of being in the world– that had already begun to take shape during the Babylonian exile.

Second of all, the whole West Asian world was already Hellenized. Greek was the lingua franca of commerce, monetary and intellectual, in that part of the world. Like anti-colonial fighters throughout time, the Maccabees appropriated material from the colonizer’s toolbox in order to advance their own cause (like declaring new holidays, like fighting on Shabbat–like speaking Greek while learning in Hebrew). The issue was: where is the accountability? Is it to some ideal of Greek civilization? Or to what was emerging as a counter-tradition with its own center of gravity based in the assurance that God does speak, that humans are created in the Divine image (mixed with the nascent idea that to speak of a Divine image is to speak in metaphor) and that right and wrong proceed from those assumption?

So although we do not, as I suggested earlier, mix our time periods with facile comparisons, we can say that the Judean people did have, thrust upon them, the questions that many small nations and peoples are forced to face when confronted by a militarily superior occupying power, one that brings, along with unwelcome domination, some good things: international cross-fertilization, new ideas, new technologies and science. What do we keep and what do we reject? In order to avail ourselves of the useful stuff, how much crap are we obliged to stuff down our throats? How much of what is uniquely our heritage do we refuse to compromise?

Of course, Judeans–proto-Jews–did not all come up with the same answers to those questions. Much of their response depended on their circumstances. As is often the case, the most well-off tended to side with the conquerors, because they benefited from their presence. They got to expand their own wealth. And they did have access to the best parts of Hellenism, that is, Greek learning. They also did what the upper crust of colonized people tend to do: change their names and even their bodies to conform to standards of beauty and excellence brought to them from outside their culture. (Imagine what people would have to do themselves to look uncircumcised. Owie.) I am baffled at folks on the Left who proudly retain Jewish names and celebrate our difference who suggest that we should identify with the assimilating Jews of Jerusalem (and not all the Jews of Jerusalem were among them!) Assimilation is precisely not cosmopolitanism; it is a privileging of the dominant culture, a universalization of an aggressive particularity.

So, of course a war against the invaders would take on some characteristics of a civil war. (See Franz Fanon et al.) This doesn’t necessarily make the Maccabees reactionaries who wanted to turn back the clock. Some changes would be irreversible. In fact, the Hasmonean dynasty established by the Maccabees was really not any better than most religious monarchies tend to be. Not much worse either. (See the prophet Shmuel on the Israelites’ insistence on crowning a king.) And of course, all wars are marked with hideous excesses and not everyone who takes up the cause of their people is doing it for upright reasons.

It was our Rabbis who moved the observance of Hanukkah toward the spiritual with the story of the oil, of which there was only enough for one day following the cleansing of the Temple, that lasted miraculously for eight nights. Whether this change represented rabbinic revulsion at the level of violence that characterized Maccabean fighting or a pragmatic sense that celebrating a national liberation struggle while under the thumb of Rome might not be too safe a thing to do is not clear–and, by now, not so relevant to our concerns. As they did with Pesach, the Rabbis chose to put narrative at the center of the holy day and to celebrate the reliance of the people on God, to celebrate the spiritual and moral orientation of our lives.

Many of us today are inspired, not only by the Rabbinic ideals, but also by the narrative of the weak defeating the strong in the name of religious liberty and freedom from exploitive tyranny. We light candles to celebrate our continued existence and our values and we display them in our windows; being truly cosmopolitan, we are proud of what makes us unique, even as we learn from our neighbors and commit ourselves to their freedom as well as ours.