One triumph and two tragedies

A combination of resolution and realism is what will serve us best in the future, as it has in the past.

Worshippers pray near a Hanukkia (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
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.
The Bar 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 name.
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 both revolts.
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.
A combination of resolution and realism is what will serve us best in the future, as it has in the past.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).