Worshippers pray near a Hanukkia.
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
Three times in Jewish history, a heroic band of Jews rebelled against an
imperial power that controlled the entire area, with the hope of restoring
Jewish independence and self-rule. Once they succeeded; twice they failed. We
celebrate the success on Hanukka, which will be observed very shortly. The first
failure – the great revolt that culminated in the destruction of the Temple in
the year 70 CE – is commemorated on 9 Av. The second failure, also remembered on
that date, was the Bar Kochba rebellion 60 years later. It left a terrible
legacy, devastating the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, where, for the
first time, Jews became a minority in their own land, and discouraging any
similar attempt until modern Zionism.
That rebellion was an almost
perfect mirror image of the Maccabean revolt. In both cases, a Hellenizing
emperor had imposed restrictions on the observance of Judaism. In both there was
a charismatic leader who was devoted to the observance of Judaism – Mattathias
in one and Bar Kochba in the other. The wonder is not that the latter failed –
could any small group really prevail against the might of Rome? – but that the
former succeeded. Perhaps the Syrian Greek empire of Antiochus was not as
powerful as Rome or not as determined as Rome to quell the rebellion. The result
was that whereas Mattathias and his sons were idolized, Bar Kochba became an
anathema. The Sages called him not Bar Kochba (the son of a star) but Bar Koziba
(the son of a lie). His real name was neither; it was Bar Kosiba.
Kochba rebellion, for all that it was doomed to failure from the start, gave
Rome a run for its money. The difficulty Rome encountered in squelching the
revolt has long been noted, as the Roman historian Dio Cassius wrote, “But of
the Romans, too, many fell in this war; so many that Hadrian, in his dispatch to
the Senate, refrained from using the customary introductory phrase: ‘I trust you
and your children are well; I and my troops are well.’” Unlike the Maccabean
revolt, however, the Bar Kochba rebellion had a messianic flavor, although Bar
Kochba himself never seems to have taken the title Messiah. On the coins he
issued he is referred to simply as “Nasi” (“prince” or “leader”). However, the
greatest rabbinic sage of the time, Rabbi Akiva, openly proclaimed him the
Messiah and may even have been responsible for coining his adopted
Akiva attached his proclamation of the Messiah to the biblical
verse “A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel” (Numbers
24:17) (Y. Ta’anit 4:7 68d). Since that time, Jews have been skeptical of
messianic claims and messianic movements – and rightly so. But the result was
that it was also considered forbidden to make any attempt to attain Jewish
independence. For that reason, when Zionism began, it encountered fierce
resistance from religious leaders. Even today, when groups such as Natorei Karta
and the Satmar Hassidim demonstrate publicly against Israel, they are enacting
the negative consequences of the Bar Kochba Revolt.
On the other hand,
Zionism took as its prime example the Maccabean revolt and patterned itself
after Judah Maccabee and his followers. Actually, we can learn something from
From the Maccabees we can learn that we must have the
courage to stand up and fight for our rights and our independence. From Bar
Kochba’s failure we can learn that we must be realistic and neither overestimate
what power alone can achieve nor underestimate the forces aligned against us.
That is exactly what happened in the case of the Yom Kippur War.
combination of resolution and realism is what will serve us best in the future,
as it has in the past.
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The writer, former president of the International
Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest
The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).
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