The events that comprise the story of Hanukka are among the most dramatic and stirring in human history. The uprising of a small band of Jewish guerrillas against a Hellenistic empire many centuries ago has inspired poets and politicians, Jews and Christians alike. The Hanukka story is certainly one of mankind's greatest, the tale of a downtrodden and persecuted people who fought against overwhelming odds and emerged victorious.
Yet, there is a history rarely explored concerning the events both before and after the successful rebellion of the Maccabees against the evil Seleucid king Antiochus IV.
Before the Greco-Syrian tyrant attempted to destroy the Jewish faith in the Land of Israel, relations between the Jews and the Hellenists who ruled over them were quite good. Hellenism was a movement to imitate and adopt ancient Greek culture, language, religion and politics. It was sparked by the monumental conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE.
Beginning with Alexander, the Hellenistic kingdoms that dominated Judea were tolerant, allowing the Jews to worship as they wished. In 198 BCE, the Jews of Jerusalem assisted Antiochus III - the father of the megalomaniac king of the Hanukka story - in capturing the Judean capital from the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty. Antiochus III rewarded the Jews by restoring those parts of Jerusalem destroyed by the wars between the two Hellenistic kingdoms, freeing its citizens from the obligation to pay taxes for three years, as well as supplying funds for the second Temple on Mount Zion.
In the ancient world, the policy of enforced Hellenization promoted by Antiochus IV was the exception to the rule. While there was certainly strong anti-Jewish animus among the Hellenists, it was rarely translated into a consistent policy of persecution. In fact, there was a thriving community of Greek-speaking Jews who lived in Alexandria but were ardent in expressing their Jewish identity. If we rely on the Hanukka story alone to inform us of the relationship between the Hellenists and Jews, our portrait of that relationship is an inaccurate one.
HOW DID the small band of Jewish fighters overcome the heavily armed forces of the Hellenist Seleucids? The first, and most obvious answer - the answer that is at the heart of our celebration of the Festival of Lights - is that most of the Jews in Judea were boundlessly loyal to the Torah and would fight to the death to preserve their religion.
But there were other factors as well. Even more moderate Hellenists among the Jews did not sympathize with the harsh policies of Antiochus IV and threw in their lot with the Maccabees. Also, the Seleucid enemy was a house divided - the Hellenistic kingdom in Syria was plagued by violent infighting. The Jews took advantage of this weakness. Finally, the Maccabee rebels had the support of foreign powers, especially the up-and-coming power of Rome.
Before his death, Judah Maccabee made a formal treaty of alliance with the Roman senate. This reliance on Rome and other powers of the ancient world would come back to haunt the Maccabees.
AFTER JUDAH and his brothers recaptured the Temple and purified it in 164 BCE, the Seleucids gave up on the policy of religious repression. But the Maccabee uprising surged forward and the Jews fought for more than just freedom of worship. While the traditional celebration of Hanukka focuses on this aspect of the rebellion, it ignores the fact that the Maccabees were fighting a war to establish an independent Jewish state in Israel. Although Judah later died in battle, his brothers and their successors - known as the Hasmoneans - founded the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
The often untold and tragic history of the events that took place after the Hanukka victory is a sobering one. Judah's surviving brothers assumed leadership of the Hasmonean state but both men died violent deaths in palace intrigues.
The aftermath of the triumph of Hanukka is a shocking story of the betrayal of Maccabean ideals and the tragedy of civil war. The Hasmonean dynasty - named after Hasmon, a distant ancestor of the Maccabees - transformed itself into an efficient war machine, greatly expanding the borders of its kingdom. Yet it failed, for reasons both ideological and practical, to carry the torch of opposition to Hellenism which had been the hallmark of Judah Maccabee.
An important reason this was so was that the Hanukka victory did not result in the end of Seleucid influence in Judea. The Greco-Syrians continued to interfere in Hasmonean politics long after the Jews recaptured the Temple. On the basis of the traditional Hanukka celebration alone, this fact is conveniently put aside and ignored.
AS EARLY as 145 BCE, the Jewish forces of the Hasmonean state were brought to Antioch to repress riots against the Seleucid kingdom in Syria, the former enemy of the Maccabees. At that time, the Hasmoneans were granted diplomatic recognition from the growing juggernaut that was Rome. The Maccabees then claimed the office of the High Priest, a claim that was shaky at best and alienated part of the Judean population.
After the murder of Simon Maccabee in 135 BCE, his son John Hyrcanus assumed the High Priesthood and leadership of the Hasmonean state. The forces of Hyrcanus fought with the Seleucids yet again, this time in an unsuccessful campaign against the Parthians in the East. After finally ridding Judea of Greco-Syrian influence, Hyrcanus expanded the borders of the Jewish kingdom through a series of wars, but not without causing controversy.
While the Hasmoneans at first expelled pagans from territories that the Jews had conquered, their policy soon changed to one of forced conversion to Judaism. John Hyrcanus forced both the Idumeans in the South and the Galileans in the North to convert to the Jewish faith. These converts became among the most loyal sector of the Jewish people and the Hasmonean policy assured a Jewish demographic majority in the kingdom. But the forced conversion to Judaism of the Idumeans would later spawn King Herod, the hated tyrant who ruled over Judea with an iron fist.
AFTER THE death of John Hyrcanus, the next important Hasmonean leader was one of his sons, Alexander Janneus. Janneus, one of the later Hasmonean rulers and a descendant of the Maccabees, claimed the kingship, although he was a priest and not a descendant of the great monarch David.
He employed Greek mercenaries in the Hasmonean army and surrounded himself with an increasingly Hellenized court. The Jewish leadership was coming to resemble more and more the Hellenists against whom they once staged a heroic and brilliant revolution.
There was much discontent among the descendants of the Jews who fought the brave fight against Antiochus IV. They protested the autocratic policies and the backsliding of rulers like Alexander Janneus.
In a prolonged civil war that resulted from this opposition to the Hasmoneans, Janneus crucified hundreds of his political enemies, fellow Jews all. It is telling that the Hasmonean king, though his kingdom was a theocracy, employed a pagan form of execution rather than a Jewish form of capital punishment.
Many of his opponents fled the Land of Israel and only returned after Janneus died. They flourished when the civil strife subsided under the reign of Salome Alexandra, the widow of Janneus. By that time, however, Rome was replacing the Hellenistic kingdoms as the world's greatest power.
The Hasmonean kingdom lost its independence to the Romans in 63 BCE. Roman puppets later ruled the former Jewish state, Herod the most infamous of them. Eventually, Roman governors ruled directly over Judea. For the most part, these rulers were ineffective and alienated the Jewish masses. The Jews staged a revolt against Rome in 66 CE. The Romans conquered Jerusalem and later destroyed the second Temple. The glory of the Maccabees was reduced to ashes.
YES, HANUKKA should give us legitimate reason to celebrate the victories of the Maccabees against the Greco-Syrians, their fight for religious freedom, and their founding of an independent kingdom. However, the history of Judah and his successors should also serve as a warning in two ways.
First, while Jews worldwide are blessed today with a successful Jewish state in Israel and thriving communities in parts of the Diaspora, the path to individual and national assimilation into the majority cultures is always a danger - a danger we must fight as did our ancestors. How ironic it is that Judah's descendants betrayed the revolution that he fought and that we celebrate on Hanukka.
Second, the Hasmoneans truly believed that they were carrying out God's will in a theocracy ruled by Torah law. But in the end they abused that power and alienated many Jews.
The yearning in our own day for messianic restoration and the return of theocracy is a tragic mistake. We should celebrate Hanukka with great joy but make sure to learn the lessons of the Hasmonean kingdom and not repeat its mistakes.
The writer is a lecturer in Jewish history in the adult education programs at Broward Community College and Nova Southeastern University, both in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.