Hard times now, hard time then

The Maccabees and the illusion of supreme power.

menorah 88  (photo credit: )
menorah 88
(photo credit: )
In the Zionist imagination, the holiday of Hanukka is a celebration of triumph, glory, and a golden age of Jewish power and sovereignty under the leadership of the Maccabees and their descendants. While Ahad Ha'am and Max Nordau were early Zionist thinkers and activists who disagreed on almost every aspect of the emerging movement, the one element they agreed upon was the importance of Hanukka to modern Jews. Both men admired the Maccabees and placed them in the center of their ideologies. Looking back in history, however, the idea that the Hasmonean kingdom of Judah and his descendants were all-powerful and truly independent is, in part, a myth. Yes, Judah Maccabee led a successful rebellion against the mighty Seleucid empire, he retook the temple in Jerusalem and reestablished it as a cultic center, and he founded a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Yet, the history of the Maccabees after the triumph of Hanukka in 164 BCE is, for the most part, dismal and depressing. The power of the Hasmoneans - the Maccabees named their kingdom after an ancestor, Hasmon - was severely limited by the Hellenist Seleucids for more than a generation. It took many years for the Hasmoneans to expel the presence of the Seleucid army from the Land of Israel. Jonathan, Judah Maccabee's brother and successor, was so weak politically that he was forced in 145 BCE by the Seleucids to repress riots in Antioch that were threatening the Greek-Syrian regime. Both Jonathan and Simon were both murdered in palace intrigue that was fomented by the Hellenists. Even in the reign of the Jewish leader, John Hyrcanus - as late as 135 BCE - the Maccabees still had to deal with the presence of Seleucid soldiers in the Land of Israel. After the Hasmoneans finally were able to force out the Hellenists, they had to deal with the emerging Roman Empire. After existing for more than a century, the Hasmonean kingdom broke apart under Rome's pressure and Jewish sovereignty ceased. Herod, A master builder, but a puppet of the Romans and the descendant of Idumeans, took over leadership of Israel from the Maccabees in 39 BCE. This portrait of the Hasmonean kingdom is not that of a glorious golden age of sovereignty for ancient Jews, as the Zionist movement has portrayed it. The Maccabees could never gain true power to be the masters of their own destiny. WHILE THE Hasmoneans had great difficulty exercising power and independence in the face of the Hellenists and the Romans, they also failed to gain total legitimacy in the eyes of most Jews in Judea. There is no doubt that the Judeans supported Judah, Jonathan, and Simon in the early years of the Hasmonean regime. However, over time that popularity would begin to wane and would devolve into civil war. The Hasmoneans, under Simon, claimed the high priesthood - the most powerful political and religious position in Judea - despite the fact that they were not from the family of the high priest. This was not a cynical power grab by the Maccabees. They believed that to acquire legitimacy they had to seize the high priesthood. But the Hasmoneans had their opponents, among them scribes who copied the Dead Sea Scrolls, a sectarian group that would never recognize Hasmonean legitimacy and condemned a corrupt, Maccabean temple leadership. Furthermore, by the reign of Alexander Janneus (102-76 BCE), the Hasmoneans were also claiming to be kings of Judea - even though they were not descendants of King David. Alexander hired Greek mercenaries for his army. His court, as time passed, became modeled on other Hellenistic kingdoms in the Middle East. Many Jews questioned Alexander's legitimacy and his policies. The result of this opposition was a civil war in which the king crucified hundreds of his Jewish enemies. There is no doubt that Alexander Janneus believed he was a legitimate Jewish ruler who was acting in the interests of Judea. But never were the Maccabees ever able to gain the legitimacy they craved in the eyes of the Jews in Israel. No doubt the Zionists were right in trumpeting Hanukka as a holiday to remember as a great victory and to inspire modern Jews in their fight for sovereignty. However, the Zionist movement could learn much from rabbinic tradition in evaluating the Hasmoneans. That tradition, while celebrating the aspects of religious freedom and the miracle of the one cruse of oil lasting eight days, has always been suspicious of the Hasmonean leadership and questioned its legitimacy. The early rabbis never canonized the texts celebrating the Maccabee victory and did not include the story of the Hasmoneans in the Bible because they questioned Maccabee legitimacy as high priests and kings. Let us all celebrate Hanukka as a great victory for religious freedom and Jewish sovereignty. Let Hanukka inspire us. But let us also remember that the Maccabees were never as powerful or legitimate as Zionist ideology would have us believe. Just as today, Israel has had to fend off enemies and create alliances with superpowers to retain sovereignty, so the Maccabees of old did not live in a golden age of unquestioned power and had to fight just to survive. The writer, based in Florida, is an adjunct lecturer on Jewish history at Broward Community College.