Rome: The Maccabee miscalculation

Hanukkah should be a time to celebrate Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, miracles brought forth by God, and Jewish security.

December 1, 2013 22:37
4 minute read.

Hannukia menorah 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Over 2,000 years have passed since Judah the Maccabee and his brothers in the Land of Israel led a guerrilla army that brought down an oppressive Seleucid superpower. Still, the question remains: How did Judah and his ragtag army pull off the victory of the Hanukka story? The first two answers will shock no one who knows the history of the rebellion. But the third answer will likely surprise you.

The first key to victory was the loyalty of the Jewish masses to their faith, the Torah, and ritual sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple.

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Torah burned in the blood of farmers in Judea and they made excellent soldiers.

Judah’s leadership and his yearning for both the restoration of the Temple and Jewish independence motivated the men under his command. It is obvious that Jewish faith in the God of Israel drove the rebels to fight with all their strength. The Hellenistic attempt to destroy Torah was doomed to fail.

The second key to victory is a bit less obvious but is critical to understanding the Maccabee success. The Seleucid overlords were deeply divided. The kingdom of Antiochus Epiphanes was on the decline.

It is possible that if the rebellion had erupted earlier it would not have succeeded.

This is no way diminishes the faith of the rebels and the aid that God gave them.

Yet, it is part of the reality of Maccabee victory and it would play an important role for Judah’s Hasmonean successors.

The third key to Hanukkah victory has often been ignored. This reason for Maccabee victory would lead to results that eventually were disastrous for Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. We should learn from this factor.

Judah was not just a great fighter. He was a statesman and a master of foreign policy.

Rome wanted to see the collapse of the Hellenists – Judah used this fact to his advantage. Before Judah’s death in battle in 160 BCE, the Jews sent a delegation to the Roman Senate. The result was a “special relationship” between the Jews and the emerging superpower. This alliance was a brilliant political move by Judah and certainly was a factor in the Maccabee victory.

But the tragedy of this alliance – a masterstroke of foreign policy that served its purpose for its time – would only become clear a century later.

By the 60s BCE, the Maccabee kingdom was in trouble. Hasmonean rule combined the best and the worst aspects of Jewish sovereignty and Jewish involvement in world politics. Judah’s brothers – Jonathan and Simon – were able leaders who seemed to be loved by most Judeans. But some of their political moves were controversial.

They assumed the High Priesthood and, eventually, the monarchy, despite their lack of traditional legitimacy in claiming these positions of leadership.

Seleucid interference – even after the Temple was restored to Jewish control – was a reality that would not go away. Both Jonathan and Simon were assassinated in palace intrigue. Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus, brought great success to Judea, driving out the Seleucids for good and expanding the borders of the kingdom through military conquest. His son, Alexander Janneus – not remembered fondly in rabbinic texts – was a political powerhouse.

But there was growing discontent in Judea. Not much is know of the civil war that erupted in Maccabee Judea. But it was a disaster for the Jews.

Alexander’s death and the rise to power of his widow Salome Alexandra marked a small golden age for Judea and an end to civil strife. By that time, however, the Jews were weak – and a prime target for a Rome that was now poised to take over the Old World. The queen’s sons appealed to the Romans in a rivalry over succession. This appeal to Rome – Judea was now a vassal state for all intents and purposes – led to Pompey’s storming of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The “special relationship” established by Judah Maccabee backfired. Jewish sovereignty was doomed. It took a century – a century in which Judah’s heirs wasted opportunities to try to prevent the collapse of their kingdom. All in all, this was a sad story.

My goal in this essay was not to destroy your celebration of Hanukka.

We should be proud of our ancestors and especially proud of the brilliant Judah. We should exult in the victory of the few over the many. Let us celebrate our faith and our independence. But, please – if we do not learn the lesson of Rome and the Hasmoneans, we are doomed to repeat some very unpleasant, sobering and tragic realities.

Hanukka should be a time to light the hanukkia, spin the dreidel, give the kids gelt, and eat latkes. Hanukkah should be a time to celebrate Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, miracles brought forth by God, and Jewish security. It should not be a time of nightmares of the coming reality of Iranian nuclear warheads.

The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.

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