Maccabees: The challenge to traditional authority

There are still Jews today who see Davidic messianic monarchy as an ideal, rather than democracy.

THE STARK desert of the Judean desert east of Jerusalem. From these mountains and other areas of the hill country the Maccabean kings sallied forth against their enemies. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE STARK desert of the Judean desert east of Jerusalem. From these mountains and other areas of the hill country the Maccabean kings sallied forth against their enemies.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Alexander Janneus, an ancient king, executed 800 Jews. The mode of execution was crucifixion.
But Alexander was not a Greco-Syrian tyrant in the mold of Antiochus IV, the evil king of the Hanukka story. Alexander Janneus was a Jew. Furthermore, he was a Maccabee, the grandson of Judah’s brother Simon.
While the roots of the civil war that shook Judea during Alexander’s reign remain shrouded in mystery, there is no doubt that segments of the Jewish population that he ruled opposed the basis of his authority.
Alexander proclaimed himself King of Judea yet he was not of the House of David. He was a Kohen, a priest.
Furthermore, Maccabee leaders lacked the pedigree of the high-priestly family, yet they seized the mantle of the priesthood. The Dead Sea Scroll community at Qumran defected from Jerusalem in protest at what they considered to be usurpation. Later, the Pharisees – the forerunners of the rabbis – opposed Alexander Janneus and were murdered by him. The rabbis would never forget Alexander’s cruelty. They excluded the First Book of Maccabees from the Bible and focused on the miracles of Hanukka, not the military victories and the sovereignty of a Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel. The few words they devote to Alexander Janneus are not kind.
How did the Maccabees exert their authority and why is it relevant to the events of our own time? The authority of the Hasmonean rulers was based on military victory and political realities. It was not rooted in tradition but in realpolitik. The reason the Maccabees could claim the high priesthood and the monarchy was simple: They were the Jewish force that led the revolt against the Hellenists and, eventually, drove the heirs of Antiochus IV out of Jerusalem and out of Israel. They did not need Scripture or historical precedent as a legitimization of their rule. They were the victors and, for many years, their Jewish subjects were more than willing to follow them. It only seemed right to the successors of Judah Maccabee that they should claim the positions of leadership of Jews in Judea.
For many reasons, the Zionist movement transformed Hanukka from a minor holiday into a central pillar of the Hebrew calendar. The reality that Judah did not fight alone for religious freedom but for Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel was a model and template for the goals of a modern movement fighting for statehood.
The brutality of Alexander Janneus that fueled the rabbinic degrading of Maccabee victory and politics was eclipsed by the victories of Judah and his descendants and their success at expanding the borders of Judea. The passivity of the Diaspora Jew gave way to the heroic and monumental history of the Maccabees. Hanukka now dominates the Jewish landscape, not just as a holiday of miracles but one of human triumph.
Yet, there is more to Hanukka than the resurrection of military heroes and heroism. In many ways, the authority of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel for the past century has paralleled the authority of the Maccabees. Just as Judah Maccabee reached out to the Roman Republic for recognition in the war against the Greco-Syrians, the leaders of the modern Zionist movement saw the importance in forging alliances in the international arena. While the Bible was always viewed by Zionists as a deed to the Land of Israel, this could not be the sole legitimization of the Zionist enterprise. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the UN Partition 30 years later, president Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel – these were essential elements in the State of Israel’s entrance into the world arena. The Maccabees forged political alliances and pursued international recognition. So did Herzl, Weizmann, Jabotinsky and the Zionist leadership.
The reality of politics was central to the building of the State of Israel.
Despite all the importance of diplomatic recognition, war has shaped modern Israel in the way it transformed ancient Judea. The Maccabee rebellion and the purification of a recaptured Temple in Jerusalem was only a prelude to the attempt to oust the Greco-Syrians from the Land of Israel, an effort that took many years.
Just as Israel’s borders today have been shaped by war, so it was for the Maccabees. Under Alexander Janneus, the Hellenists were finally dislodged from the Land of Israel and the state founded by the Maccabees was at its maximum in terms of the size of its territory. Ongoing war was a reality in the ancient Jewish world and remains so today.
There are other striking parallels between authority, ancient and modern. Just as the heirs of Judah Maccabee resembled over time the courts of Mediterranean kingdoms, so did the Zionist movement reject the theocracy of the ancient world and the oligarchy of medieval Diaspora autonomy for a democratic state.
Jews had never experienced democracy before as a people. The State of Israel chose a model for the state that was not inherently Jewish. Hellenizing influences on the Maccabees caused opposition to their policies.
There are still Jews today who see Davidic messianic monarchy as an ideal, rather than democracy.
Finally, the Maccabee adoption of the high priesthood and monarchy and the rejection of traditional authority is paralleled by the successful effort of the Second Aliya pioneers to supplant the Old Yishuv. The traditionalists, some who had lived in Israel for centuries under the Ottoman Turks, despised the halutzim because the new arrivals were undermining the halukah system of raising money in the Diaspora that had maintained the Jewry in the Land of Israel for centuries.
And most of the new arrivals were Socialist Zionists who did not follow the dictates of Halacha. But with the decline of the Ottomans, the onset of modernity and the self-reliant success of the Second Aliyah settlers, power shifted to the New Yishuv. The Old Yishuv – their authority was based on their status in the Islamic world – lost power to the newcomers who established facts on the ground to gain representation of Jews in Jerusalem and later, the rest of the world.
The caveat here is that power not rooted in traditional authority and based solely on realpolitik can be abused. The moral call of the prophets cannot be lost in the realities of power. The Maccabee kingdom was a success in many ways. But the end result, with power unchecked, was civil war. The kingdom declined and never regained the glory of the battles that comprise the story of Hanukka.