Maccabees (~Hanukkah Snark) (Politics)


According to some, the modern (secular, liberal) Hanukkah story about a people’s liberation against an imperial enemy obscures, as an act of ideological bad faith, an apparently more basic historical truth: that the Maccabean revolt was “really” a civil war pitting religious fundamentalists, namely the Maccabees, against intrepid Judeans bent on Greek secular enlightenment. After 9/11, this revised version has become almost received writ among Jewish critics of religion, most notably right wing, conservative religion. That this account has come to enjoy such prominence davka after 9/11 should be indication enough to suspect that something has gone terribly amiss in this line of interpretation. The tendency nowadays to paint the Maccabees as Judean Taliban suggests that there are a lot of people out there with an ahistorical ax to grind.

Myself, I would be happy to see it both ways. Perhaps indeed the Maccabean revolt was a civil war pitted between forces of Hellenism and anti-Hellenism and also a rebellion against wicked Antiochus looting the Temple and making life miserable for people. You cannot base only one and not the other of these interpretations on a reading of Maccabees 1, chp.1,  since both sides to the story are found in this particular chapter.

The more I think about it, though, the more it seems that the Maccabees were anything but the rabid religious zealots they are presented as by their contemporary critics, and this despite the invocation of Pinchas, that great biblical zealot from the Book of Numbers. The story in Maccabees 1 of forced circumcision of uncircumcised Judeans and  compelling some non-Jews to convert to Judaism suggest not a little bit of the holy terror that so upsets the critics. But nothing is that simple. That the Hasmoneans, who succeeded the Maccabees, were among the greatest forces of Hellenism in ancient Judean society is often presented as an “irony,” when it might just as well be the case that the seeds of Hellenism are already to be found fully developed, if not in the Revolt itself, at least in the text of Maccabees 1.

I would keep the following in mind:

–The central concern during the revolt were two, neither having anything to do with God. One factor was cultic. “[Our sanctuary, even our beauty and our glory, is laid waste, and the Gentiles have profaned it. To what end therefore shall we live any longer?Macc1. 2:12-13 The second factor has to do with “life and law” (Macc.1, 2:40). God and devotion to God are not so much in play. At least that’s the story in the less theological Maccabees 1, whereas Maccabees 2, written in Greek, not Hebrew, is far more “religious” in the way it frames the story and interprets events.

–Whatever they might have been, the Maccabees were not “fundamentalists” or  fanatic in their approach to the law. The true fanatics were those other rebels holed up in the countryside who refused to fight on Shabbat, letting the Syrian Greeks forces slaughter them “in their innocence.” The decision by the Maccabees to fight on Shabbat marks an innovation of law about which those responsible for creating and disseminating Maccabees 1 were quite self-aware. Syntaxically, life trumps law in Macc.1 2:40.

–The turn to Rome and the attraction of Rome to the Maccabees suggests anything but political reaction or religious intolerance. The attraction to Rome is the attraction to brute power coupled to Roman democracy. About Roman political virtue, we find the following:

[W]ith their friends and such as relied upon them they kept amity: and that they had conquered kingdoms both far and nigh, insomuch as all that heard of their name were afraid of them. Also that, whom they would help to a kingdom, those reign; and whom again they would, they displace: finally, that they were greatly exalted. Yet for all this none of them wore a crown or was clothed in purple, to be magnified thereby. Moreover how they had made for themselves a senate house, wherein three hundred and twenty men sat in council daily, consulting alway for the people, to the end they might be well ordered. And that they committed their government to one man every year, who ruled over all their country, and that all were obedient to that one, and that there was neither envy nor emmulation among them. In consideration of these things, Judas chose Eupolemus the son of John, the son of Accos, and Jason the son of Eleazar, and sent them to Rome, to make a league of amity and confederacy with them, and to entreat them that they would take the yoke from them; for they saw that the kingdom of the Grecians did oppress Israel with servitude” (Macc.1, 8: 12-18).

Politically red in tooth, the Hanukkah story remains, after all, fundamentally republican, and anti-imperial, not theocratic per se. At least that’s how the story takes shape in the modern period, starting already in the 17th century at the dawn of Enlightenment. As for the photograph at the top of this post, the one from 1919 from Milwaukeee, that would be Golda Meir holding up the menorah. For some reason, the politics critics of Hanukkah don’t seem to appreciate paegantry and “camp.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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