On the Eve of Hanukkah, a Story of a Fallen High Priest

The tension in defining boundaries between religious and secular life and practice remains with us millennia after Jason the high priest built a contentious gymnasium in Jerusalem.

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Living in Jerusalem means to dwell amidst history. The building next door to where we live on Alfasi Street in the Rehavia neighborhood was the home of Menachem Begin in the years 1942-1944, when he was tapped to head the Irgun militia. But down the block is a significantly older historical site: a Maccabean-era, rock-cut burial chamber identified as Jason’s Tomb. Jason is not a particularly Jewish name. So, who was Jason and how did he get buried in Rehavia?

From the charcoal drawings of two warships and the inscriptions inside the tomb, one speculation is that Jason was a naval commander who sailed the coast of Egypt. But in her book "Doubt: A History," Jennifer Michael Hecht tells another story from that era, of a Jewish high priest named Jason who had lost his standing as he pandered to the pull of assimilation.

Jason lived during the Second Temple period after a minority of the Jews exiled in Babylon was led back to Israel by Ezra and Nehemiah, who reestablished the Temple service according to a strict adherence to Jewish law. In 200 BCE, at Gaza, Antiochus III, of the Seleucid kingdom, defeated the Ptolemaic Egypt-based kingdom. Israel was the strategic battleground between these two warring empires.

Antiochus III’s successor was his son, Antiochus IV. He took on the name Epiphanes (illustrious or revealer) and a signature of his reign was the promotion of Hellenistic culture. Indicating their displeasure with him, pious Jews of the time referred to him as “Epimanes” (cracked or mad).

According to Hecht, Antiochus retired the pro-Ptolemaic Jewish high priest, a son of High Priest Simon, replacing him with Simon's more progressive younger son Jason, who secured his selection with a bribe. Jason, who was born Joshua but, tellingly, chose to go by the Greek version of his name, already had a strong following of Jews who opposed the strict application of Jewish law. Jason, Hecht writes, quickly took steps to make the finer things of Greek culture available to Jews, and his first order of business was building a gymnasium in Jerusalem, at the foot of the Temple Mount.

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The attitude to these events, as recorded in the Book of Maccabees, is clear.

“In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant.”

In 172 BCE, Jason sent his younger brother, Menelaus, to deliver a tribute to Antiochus. Menelaus took the opportunity to undermine his brother, bribing Antiochus to install him as the new High Priest. Jason fled to Ammon, but returned four years later, in 168 BCE, to make a failed bid for reinstatement. One version of the end to his story suggests that he fled again to Ammon, continuing on to Egypt, and then eventually to Sparta where he died and was buried.

Another version has him being killed in Jerusalem. Entombment within the confines of ancient Jerusalem was not an option. A legend I’ve heard repeated by my neighbors has it that, to determine the site of burial, an archer was instructed to shoot an arrow as far as he could from the city walls. And that arrow supposedly landed at the site identified today as Jason’s Tomb.

The gymnasium constructed by Jason at the foot of the Temple Mount is symbolic of the conflict that would result in the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid kingdom chronicled in the Hanukkah story. But, even more so, it was a lightning rod for the civil war that was about to break out between the secular Hellenophile Jews and those following the tradition of Ezra.

The Greek word gymnasium means to train naked. As such, it was an inherent challenge to traditional Jewish standards of modesty. Additionally, to fit in with the culture around them, men began reversing their circumcisions and stopped circumcising their male babies. As reported in the Book of Maccabees, the Temple priests “ceased to show any interest in the services of the altar; scorning the Temple and neglecting the sacrifices, they would hurry to take part in the unlawful exercises on the training-ground.”

What made the gymnasia so alluring were not just the physical activities there, but the philosophical discussions, the culture, the music, and the art. It became the center of a broader communal life, the place of interaction between Jew and non-Jew, where the old ways were forgotten and abandoned. As such, it was an inversion of the religious model, with its celebration of the material and the diminution of the spiritual.

History is written by the victors and our telling of the Hanukkah story is often simplified to a military triumph and the miracle of the oil in the Temple. However, the underlying civil war, the tension inherent in defining boundaries between religious and secular life and practice remains with us today as perhaps our most contentious issue to solve.

Ironically, today’s Maccabiah Games, also known as the Jewish Olympics, in its naming reflects a case of modern amnesia. What the games celebrate, the Greek ideals of physical skill and prowess, are in part, what the Maccabeans were fighting against. Metaphorically, Jason the high priest, buried in the tomb in the heart of modern day Jerusalem or wherever, is probably smiling.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.