It’s one thing to argue against the existence of God, but to insult Judah Maccabee, perhaps the greatest warrior in Jewish history — well, that’s just a shandah.
After all, Judah Maccabee and his followers are the central heroes of the Chanukah story, and generations of Hebrew school students have been taught to revere them for their pursuit of religious freedom for Jews.
It’s difficult to escape references to the Maccabees in Jewish life, even beyond their holiday fame: The dynastic family and their followers are the namesakes of an international sports competition, as well as the most decorated sports club in Israel, and have served as the inspiration for the Israel Defense Forces.
But references to the Maccabees — who revolted against the Seleucid or Syrian Greek empire in the 2nd century BCE — are also coming up more frequently in popular culture as well, and not always in a positive light.
In his 2007 book God Is Not Great and in an essay for www.Slate.com, critic and author Christopher Hitchens attempted to slay a sacred Jewish cow when he described the Maccabees as religious fundamentalists.
But for Hitchens, the band of warriors represented a people opposed to the science, philosophy and culture of Greek society and instead fought for a return to a less urbane religion that centered around animal sacrifice.
In addition, Mel Gibson — yes, the same man who made The Passion of the Christ and said that Jews were “responsible for all the wars in the world” — was rumored to be making a biopic about Judah Maccabee. (Reportedly, the project is in the very early stages and may not get off the ground.)
In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg — a national correspondent and blogger for The Atlantic who is working on a book about Judah Maccabee — Gibson indirectly likened the Jewish patriot to William Wallace, the hero of his Academy Award-winning film Braveheart: someone who wanted to live a peaceful life but “snapped” when outsiders took his freedom away.
With so many cultural layers piled on, is it possible to know the truth about the Maccabee family? Led first by Mattahias, and later by one of his sons, Judah, were they religious zealots, champions of religious freedom or simply fighting for political power?
What if the question can’t be answered? Should historical uncertainty affect how educators teach the story of Chanukah to the next generation?
Jeffrey Tigay, emeritus professor of Hebrew and Semitic literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Maccabees were religious innovators, not fundamentalists.
Mattahias “rejected the refusal of some of his allies who refused to fight on Shabbat and as a consequence were slaughtered by the Greeks; Mattahias decided to fight back on Shabbat in order to survive,” Tigay wrote in an email.
And by creating a new holiday, Chanukah, that had no basis in the Bible, the Hasmoneans — the dynasty that came to power after the Maccabees defeated the Seleucids — showed “a willingness to adjust the law when necessary.”
Although Judah Maccabee may not have been a religious zealot, neither was he the symbol of religious freedom that he is often portrayed as today, said Seth Schwartz, an expert on Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods at Columbia University in New York.
“Judah as fighter for an abstract principle of religious liberty is also totally anachronistic,” Schwartz wrote in an email.
The Maccabees were traditionalists at a time when many Jews were adopting a Hellenized lifestyle. Schwartz said it wasn’t their response to assimilation that was unprecedented, but instead it was the “extreme and unprecedented” proclamation by Antiochus IV, ruler of the Syrian Greek empire, which outlawed Jewish ritual and forced Jews to practice a Pagan religion, that flew in the face of historical practice.
Schwartz pointed out that nearly everything known about the historical period comes from the first and second book of Maccabees, which also contains the story of Hannah and her seven sons choosing to die by the sword rather than violate God’s law and forcibly eat swine.
For reasons that remain unknown, the Maccabee books were excluded from the Hebrew Bible — though they were put into the Roman Catholic cannon — and not considered holy, said Schwartz. Jews did continue to read the books into the Middle Ages. Today, the original Hebrew version is lost and only the ancient Greek translation survives.
Rabbi Shmuel Jablon, the principal of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, said the books may have been omitted from the Bible because the Maccabees were fighting to preserve the oral Torah as well as the written Torah.
To make this point, the story of Chanukah is only in the siddur and the Talmud, which comes from the oral Torah, he said.
Although the Chanukah story is mentioned in the Talmud, the talmudic rabbis, said Jablon, “did not embrace much of the story. They had little to say about the Maccabean revolt and little apparent sympathy for the Hasmonean family. It may be that they wanted holidays to commemorate explicit divine intervention.”
Could it be that the editors of the Bible and Talmud did not want to glorify military victories, the way the Greeks and Romans did?
“I assure you that the Tanach, and Jewish tradition, has no problem with warfare,” replied Jablon. “Remember, we have mitzvot like self-defense, conquering and building Eretz Yisrael, destroying Amalek, etc.”
For Jablon, nothing can change the fact that “the Maccabees were true Jewish heroes who stood up for Judaism when it was being attacked by the Syrian Greeks.
“Risking their lives, the Maccabees rose up against this oppression to restore both our self-rule and our ability to both study and observe the Torah,” he added.
For Chaim Galfand, rabbi at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, getting a clear view of Judah Maccabee is “like seeking out the clear view in Los Angeles — it exists, but it depends on which direction you’re looking.”
Galfand said he teaches his students that there are different kinds of truth: The Harry Potter books may not be factually true, but they teach about integrity, friendship and perseverance. Ultimately, the truth that the Chanukah story offers today is an inspirational saga about the merits of Jewish tradition and the dangers of totally abandoning one’s faith and tradition.
As with Judah’s nighttime march before the battle of Emmaus — considered an important victory in the Jewish war against Antiochus — “sometimes our greatest successes come with effort expended at what seems the darkest time,” he wrote in an email
One thing’s clear: Hebrew school students at Temple Sinai in Dresher won’t be watching a Hollywood version of the Chanukah saga this year. David Monblatt, director of congregational learning, thinks the synagogue can do Mel Gibson and the studios one better.
On Dec. 20, the first night of Chanukah, the synagogue’s education wing will be transformed into a Greek academy and Greek letters will replace Hebrew in the classrooms. Students will be “forced” to wear togas and told that they can no longer be Jewish — unless, of course, they come up with a secret plan for revolution, which just might be in the cards.
Still, Monblatt acknowledged there’s a lot of guesswork in trying to recreate second century Israel.
“There simply isn’t enough evidence from this time — circa 165 BCE — to say conclusively what the Maccabees really were,” he said. “It’s possible they were fundamentalists. It’s also possible that Judea was so devastat-
ed by the desecration of the Temple by the Assyrian Greeks that people were compelled to revolt. After all, their entire society was centered on Temple worship.”