fbpx
Friday, June 5, 2020

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

https://jewishjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/jj_avatar.jpg
Rabbi Robin Podolsky
Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at California State University at Long Beach and serves as affiliated clergy at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. She strives to live and teach a Judaism that is rich with answers and productive questions for people who seek meaning, justice, and kindness in a complex world. She Rabbi Podolsky has published articles in the Journal of Jewish Ethics, the Pluralist, Response, and European Judaism.

Enjoying this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

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.

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

CA to Allow Bars, Gyms, Schools, Sporting Events to Reopen June 12

California will start allowing bars, gyms, schools, summer camps and professional sporting events to start reopening on June 12. The Associated Press reported the state...

Meet the Boogaloo Bois, the Violent Right-Wing Extremists Who (Mostly) Don’t Hate the Jews

There are men showing up to the George Floyd protests in body armor and Hawaiian shirts and they want to start a civil war.

Israeli BDS Activist Seeking Asylum in Canada Will Be Deported Back to Israel

An Israeli activist who had tried to claim asylum in Canada as a refugee is getting deported back to Israel.

Jewish Federation of L.A. Calls for ‘Immediate Action’ From Government Officials to Hold Police Accountable

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (JFLA) will not tolerate system racism or police brutality within the Jewish community or any community. In its...

How Jews Can Be Better Allies to Black Americans

Many Jews are looking to be better allies against racism. Here's how.

Ohio Gov Removes National Guard Member From D.C. for Allegedly Espousing White Supremacy

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) announced on June 5 that he was removing a member of the Ohio National Guard from Washington, D.C., due...

York University Announces Measures to Address Anti-Semitism on Campus

York University in Toronto announced on June 2 that the university is going to be undertaking a series of measures to address anti-Semitism on...

This Week Taught Me How Out of Touch I Am About Race

Like many Americans, my opinions on these subjects, although well-meaning and no doubt PC, were nonetheless shallow.

Should My Business Be Sacrificed to Fight Police Brutality?

How does a business owner deal with this reality?

Watching ‘Uncut Gems’ Will Inspire You to Reexamine Black-Jewish Relations

Describing “Uncut Gems” as that movie that brought Adam Sandler rave reviews for playing a New York Jewish diamond dealer doesn’t do it justice.

Culture

Watching ‘Uncut Gems’ Will Inspire You to Reexamine Black-Jewish Relations

Describing “Uncut Gems” as that movie that brought Adam Sandler rave reviews for playing a New York Jewish diamond dealer doesn’t do it justice.

The Israel Film Center Festival Goes Virtual this Year. Here’s What You Need to Know

With theaters closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, movie releases largely have gone virtual, allowing fans to screen the latest films at home. This...

Black Jewish Woman Speaks out on Racism She Experienced at L.A. Jewish Day Schools

"As a black Jew, I've never faced more racism in my life than I have from the Jewish community and Jewish schools."

‘Mrs. America’ Is a Love Letter to Jewish Women

Who else could stand up to a figure as formidable, organized and savvy as Phyllis Schlafly?

Amid Accusations, Lea Michele Apologizes for Racist Behavior

The meal-kit company HelloFresh also responded quickly, terminating its relationship with Michele.

Latest Articles
Latest

CA to Allow Bars, Gyms, Schools, Sporting Events to Reopen June 12

California will start allowing bars, gyms, schools, summer camps and professional sporting events to start reopening on June 12. The Associated Press reported the state...

Meet the Boogaloo Bois, the Violent Right-Wing Extremists Who (Mostly) Don’t Hate the Jews

There are men showing up to the George Floyd protests in body armor and Hawaiian shirts and they want to start a civil war.

Israeli BDS Activist Seeking Asylum in Canada Will Be Deported Back to Israel

An Israeli activist who had tried to claim asylum in Canada as a refugee is getting deported back to Israel.

Jewish Federation of L.A. Calls for ‘Immediate Action’ From Government Officials to Hold Police Accountable

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (JFLA) will not tolerate system racism or police brutality within the Jewish community or any community. In its...

How Jews Can Be Better Allies to Black Americans

Many Jews are looking to be better allies against racism. Here's how.

Hollywood

Harvey Weinstein Accused of Sexual Assault by 4 More Women, Including Minor in New York Lawsuit

A new lawsuit filed against Harvey Weinstein in New York city accuses the former film producer of raping four women, including one who was...

Lil Dicky Is the Larry David of Rap in His Show ‘Dave’

If you haven’t heard of the comic rapper Lil Dicky, and you are at least tangentially interested in rap or comedy, you should familiarize...


‘Love & Stuff’ Sees Life, Death and Motherhood Through a Jewish Lens

How do you cope with both the death of a parent and the artifacts she left behind, while preparing to become a mother yourself...

Podcasts

Pandemic Times Episode 53: Are We Turning the Corner of Pandemic Times?

New David Suissa Podcast Every Morning. Reflections on how one mega-story has taken over another, and what it means moving forward. How do we manage our...

Pandemic Times Episode 52: Dealing with the Rise of Jew-Hatred

New David Suissa Podcast Every Morning. Author Severyn Ashkenazy discusses the plague of anti-Semitism and his new book, Swords of the Vatican, Reflections of a...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

x