Maccabees, Shmaccabees

Hanukkah starts in just a few days. (If you’re in Indianapolis and are interested in cultural alternatives in Jewish life, consider coming to the upcoming Havdal-ukah event!) Last year, I shared some thoughts I had at the time about Hanukkah, and suggested that what we miss in modern celebrations is that the thing that most makes our own time similar to Jewish life in the Maccabean period was the sheer diversity of Jewish life then and now.

This year, I want to take a closer look at what I think liberal Jews, in particular, need to keep in mind about the history of the Maccabean revolt and how that should play into Hanukkah celebrations.

To cut to the chase for those who don’t want to read on: we aren’t the Maccabees, we aren’t their heirs, and our holiday celebration should reflect that.

Where to Look


Greek text of II Maccabees

First: the sands of time haven’t bequeathed us anything actually written by the Maccabees themselves. The closest documents we have in time to the Maccabean revolt are three or four Jewish texts that are parts of one or another non-Jewish canon: I and II Maccabees are in Catholic and most Orthodox compilations of the Bible, and IV Maccabees appears only in the Georgian Orthodox canon.

A fourth text, the book of Judith, is sometimes associated with the story of the Maccabean revolt as a result of subsequent Jewish texts. The book itself is not part of the Jewish canon, though it is part of the Catholic and Orthodox canons. The Megilat Antiochus, or “Scroll of Antiochus,” is a medieval Jewish composition that superimposes the events of the Maccabean revolt on the story of Judith’s decapitation of the Assyrian general Holofernes

A final source deserves mention: Josephus’s histories, which retell events from the Maccabean revolt (though for much of his work, Josephus relies on I Maccabees).

Meet the Maccabees

From these sources, what do we know? Well, we know there was a revolt with a series of battles. Eventually, a dynastic line was established from among the Maccabean family itself, called the Hasmoneans. We know that the end result was that there was a basically independent Jewish kingdom until the middle of the first century B.C.E., when the Romans were invited to resolve a dispute between competing claimants to the Hasmonean throne. The result was that the Romans helped themselves to the area, made the Hasmoneans vassals for a while, and eventually deposed the Hasmoneans and handed the reins over to Herod in the mid-30s B.C.E.

We know the Maccabees were originally pietists of some sort. There’s some possible connection between hasidim (Hebrew for “righteous ones”) and hasideans (the Greek version of hasidim, and used in the Maccabean books of the Maccabees and their allies) and Hasmonean. The Hasmoneans, the heirs to the original Maccabees, are generally not viewed very well in Jewish history: there was infighting, corruption, intrigue, assassination, etc. They acquitted themselves no better than any other dynastic line.

During the part of the Maccabean revolt celebrated by Hanukkah, the Maccabees waged war against two major groups.

First, the Seleucid Greeks who sought to impose an imperial cult. Why did they do this? Well, the reasons aren’t terribly clear. There appears to be a connection to political jockeying for the Jewish priesthood in Jerusalem. There are at least four different hypotheses for the origins of the imposition of the cult and the invasion of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Seleucids; we won’t go into them, but it’s good enough to say that we really don’t know everything leading up to this mess.

Second, other Jews.

See? I surprised you there. The Maccabees fought Jews who were interested in liberalizing things a bit. Some just wanted to be Greek and not Jewish, reversing circumcisions, learning Greek, etc. Others wanted less restriction, upward mobility, and other benefits Greek ways of life could bring.

I and II Maccabees use the same Greek word to describe these Jews. They are described as paranomoi: individuals who act in a manner contrary to law. Law here means “The Law,” i.e., the Torah. (Some translations use the word “renegade,” but it obscures the meaning.)

So, let’s sum up: the Maccabees, as we find them in our available sources, were militants who did not recognize the legitimacy of any of a number of different individuals who were made High Priest, and waged war against Greeks and Jews who opposed them.

So, Here’s the Question

Do you really want to identify with these folks? These people who first were dedicated to killing fellow Jews, and who later became so thoroughly corrupt that they assassinated one another?

This is not happy-democracy Jewish rule we’re talking about. The Maccabees, and later their Hasmonean heirs, played various bits of Jewish society against one another in bids to maintain power and eventually sank their own ship by inviting the Romans in to suppress a dispute.

What, then, do we do with Hanukkah?

As it happens, the rabbis of the Talmudic period were pretty uncomfortable with the Maccabees and Hasmoneans, though some of this stems from having a memory of being on the pointy end of the Hasmonean sword. (The Hasmoneans were generally hostile to the Pharisees, whose intellectual and (sometimes) physical heirs eventually became the rabbis.) This is how we get the reworking of the holiday of Hanukkah to be about rededication of the Temple and the lights. The rabbis place the redemption in Yahweh’s hands, and greatly downplay the agency of the Maccabees.

You can see this in the traditional blessings used at Hanukkah, and in the paragraph added to the traditional liturgy to commemorate Hanukkah. The blessing most characteristic of Hanukkah reads, “Blessed are you, Yahweh our god, king of the universe, who worked miracles for our fathers in their days and down to our own time.” And the paragraph added to the Amidah during Hanukkah mentions Mattathias, the father of Judah Maccabee, once–erroneously labeling him as the High Priest!–before mentioning the Torah and how Yahweh stood up for the Jewish people.

Again–Maccabees and Hasmoneans downplayed (and erroneously presented!), and even co-opted. Hanukkah gets some candles, a paragraph, and no big public celebration; Purim gets more airtime in the rabbinic world.

But the reason the rabbis wanted serious daylight between themselves and the Maccabees wasn’t that they necessarily disagreed with a worldview that would punish people for disobedience to the Torah.

That’s not Our Way

But that way is not our way–because most contemporary liberal Jews don’t actually accept the notion of the primacy of Torah as moral and personal arbiter. And we certainly don’t do so in the world of Humanistic Judaism, whether it’s from the rabbis or from the Maccabees.

What, then, do we do with this? Some Humanistic Jews–and many Israelis–point to the Maccabees as models of freedom fighters. Others point to the centrality of human agency and self-help; after all, the Maccabees fought and won against a larger Greek force (though a Greek force waylaid by conflicts throughout the Seleucid Empire).

The problem with all of these accounts is that they ignore the fact that the closest analog party in the Maccabean revolt to modern Jews (and it’s not a perfect analog by any means!) is that of the Hellenizing Jews the Maccabees judged as “renegades” and went to war against!

What, then, do we do?

If nothing Jewish is entirely foreign to us, we weave together different strands of the story: the pietistic story and the purportedly heterodox story, the story of independence and the story of oppression of differences. Or, as Jennifer Michael Hecht observes in her book, Doubt, modern Jews ought to “let one candle burn for the other side.”

How do we do that? We create Hanukkah celebrations that reflect our values while acknowledging the different stories. We change the blessings–because, for Humanistic Jews, the traditional blessings don’t work in any event. We take advantage of the core meaning of the word Hanukkah–“dedication” in Hebrew–to renew community commitments, education commitments, and family commitments. We unabashedly make Hanukkah part of our Jewish lives–because we don’t have to take as a given that we should be somehow ashamed of Hanukkah as an also-run holiday.

Maccabees? Shmaccabees.