The Maccabee Model

The authority of the Maccabees was not rooted in tradition but in the reality of politics and war.

Maccabee cartoon 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Maccabee cartoon 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
On Easter 1903, the Jewish community of Kishinev, a city in the Bessarabian province of Russia, endured a pogrom during which a mob murdered 49 Jews and wounded thousands. The violence, which had the backing of the czar’s government and the police, took place as 5,000 Russian soldiers stood by in the city and did nothing.
The brutality of the slaughter shocked the world and galvanized the Jews of Eastern Europe to either organize self-defense groups or leave their homes for the Land of Israel or the United States. The Jewish Historical Commission of Odessa sent Haim Nahman Bialik – who would later become known as the poet of the Jewish national renaissance and a hero of the Zionist movement – to Kishinev in the wake of the pogrom. The Odessa organization wanted Bialik to collect eyewitness accounts of the violence, to photograph the survivors, the dead and the damage, and to gather documents that could be used in a Russian court against the pogrom’s instigators.
After returning from Kishinev, Bialik wrote a lament and protest against the slaughter in the city. In his 1904 poem “In the City of Slaughter,” Bialik fiercely denounced the Jews’ passivity in the face of the massacre. He condemned the Jews for not fighting the Russian peasants who attacked them and raped their wives and daughters. Bialik, in anger, condemned “the sons of the Maccabees” who hid themselves from the Russian peasants and waited, “concealed and cowering.”
For the Zionist poet, the Jews of Eastern Europe had forgotten the great triumph of the forces of Judah Maccabee. That triumph was not only one of defending religious freedom and celebrating miracles, but of founding a sovereign Jewish kingdom that endured for more than a century. The Zionists found in the Maccabees a model in history that would inspire the young Jews of the shtetl to rise up and found a new sovereign state for the Jews in the Land of Israel. They transformed Hanukka from a religious holiday celebrating a miracle into a call for national revival. Max Nordau and Ahad Ha’am – two Zionist leaders who usually never agreed on anything – did agree that the Hanukka story was central to the ideology of the growing movement and to the destiny of the Jewish people.
But I would argue that the Maccabee rebellion has an even stronger connection to Zionism and the modern State of Israel. This connection between two great revolutions in Jewish history is one of authority of Jewish leadership and the Jewish State. The authority of the Maccabees in ancient Judea was not rooted in tradition but in the reality of politics and war.
The Hasmonean rulers – Hasmon was a distant ancestor of the Maccabees, hence the name “Hasmoneans” – seized the position of High Priest from the Zadokites. The descendants of Zadok had been the High Priests in the Jerusalem Temple since the time of Solomon. In the aftermath of victory, the Maccabees took this position for themselves and, initially, had the widespread support of the Jews in the Land of Israel.
A descendant of the Maccabees, Alexander Yannai (Janneus), also claimed the kingship of the Hasmonean state – despite the tradition that the king of Israel was supposed to be a descendant of King David, not a priest. Again, the Maccabee claim of authority was rooted not in Jewish tradition or the Bible but in the reality of power politics. The Maccabees were the vanguard in the war against the Hellenist overlords and were the victors in that rebellion. Their authority was rooted in the reality of victory. While the Hasmonean dynasty certainly believed that God sanctioned their kingdom, the claim to leadership was truly revolutionary.
The same can be said for Israel today. While the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel is based on the intimate historical, religious and cultural ties of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael, the ultimate authority of the Jewish state is based on the reality of modern politics. The wars of European national liberation of more than a century ago, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the UN Partition of 1947, and the incredible victory of Jewish forces in the War of Independence – these are the roots of the authority of the modern Jewish state. While the Jewish component of Zionism has always been critical to the movement’s success, the reality is that the Zionists were revolutionaries in the mold of the Maccabees.
In many ways, Israel stands as a rebellion against traditional Jewish understandings of authority. The modern Jewish state’s adoption of democracy – a form of politics that is not inherently Jewish – is a rebellion against the ancient notion that the best form of government for Jews is a theocracy based on the rule of Torah law.
The Zionists rebelled against the theology of passivity bred by the rabbinic suppression of messianic activism. Just as the Maccabees eventually adopted the politics of the Hellenistic world around them – this was not a betrayal of the struggle against the Hellenists but a bold move that preserved the power of the Hasmonean kingdom – the State of Israel today has based its authority on the democratic nation-states of the world.
No doubt the poet Bialik was right – the sons of the Maccabees had to rediscover the power that made their ancestors great warriors. To do so meant that Zionists – like the Maccabees – had to rebel against tradition and traditional modes of authority.
Hanukka is a celebration of God’s miracles. But it also reaffirms the reality that Jewish survival must be rooted in political action in the hands of the Jews themselves. 
The writer is on the faculty of the Lifelong Learning Institute of Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida.