How the Hanukkah Myth Gave Rise to Israeli Toxic Masculinity

Machismo, martyrdom, miltarism, 'muscular' Jews, maternal filicide – these are just some of the grim legacies spawned by the myths surrounding Maccabean Revolt

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A 16th-century image of Judah Maccabee.
A 16th-century image of Judah Maccabee.Credit: Photo Josse / leemage / AFP
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin

A widespread interpretation of the story of the Maccabees sees the revolt as a victory of religious fanaticism over the spirit of liberalism, secularism and universalism. Mattathias (Matityahu) and his sons not only fought against Antiochus IV, a king in the Greek Seleucid Empire who tried to wipe out their identity. They also waged a blood-drenched civil war against their “Hellenizing” Jewish brethren, the Grecophile elites in Jerusalem who adopted Hellenist values such as beauty, education and awareness of body and mind. The late Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, for example, maintained that “the Hasmoneans’ war was aimed primarily against Jews and not against Greeks," according to "Discourses on the Jewish Holidays," a collection published by Leibowitz's students. The first victim of this revolt, in 167 B.C.E., was a Jew. The aged priest Mattathias, “zealous for God” (as we read in 1 Maccabees 2), slew a Jew who offered a sacrifice on a Greek altar at Modi’in. Whereupon he and his sons fled into the hills and launched guerrilla warfare against the Greeks.

In contemporary terms, the Hellenists were a proud part of “woke” culture: those who drink café au lait with almond milk and tweet pearls of wisdom from the latest book by Yuval Noah Harari. The Maccabees, by contrast, were a type of “hilltop youth” or Temple Mount Faithful with weird names, who dream at night about rebuilding the Temple.

The Hanukkah legend is as replete with ironies and paradoxes as there are calories in a latke, the traditional holiday potato pancake. For example, the fact that the favorite religious holiday of secular Jews actually marks the abject failure of their like-minded ancestors in the campaign and led to the establishment of a state of halakha (traditional Jewish law); or that the same Hasmoneans who fought against Hellenistic culture became Hellenists themselves within a generation and gave themselves names to match (John Hyrcanus I, Aristobulus I, who termed himself a “Philhellene,” a devotee of Greek culture, or Alexander Jannaeus); or that the Maccabees did battle against a foreign occupier and the attempt to eradicate their religious and national identity, in a way that recalls above all the Palestinians’ struggle against Israeli occupation; or that Haredim – ultra-Orthodox Jews – are this week celebrating a Jewish military victory, whereas they themselves don’t exactly flock to Israel Defense Forces induction offices.

But the myth of the Maccabees, which is implanted in every Jewish boy and girl in Israel, also has a gender angle. Here, arguably, alongside the myths about King David and Joshua, is where Israeli macho as we know it today was born, the seed that spawned the ethos of the militaristic Israeli male who likes conquests in every sense – with the bristly facial hair, rippling muscles and zero emotional intelligence, someone who never cries when watching “Master Chef.” These perceptions of masculinity continue to shape the identity of the Israeli male to this day, and dictate the character of the social life and institutions that manage the daily routine of us all.

So many malaises of Israeli society – militarism, homophobia, misogyny, aggressiveness, exclusion of women, gender violence and a culture of rape – stem from the ethos of toxic masculinity, which is hurtful not only to women but also to men. From their emergence from the womb itself, men absorb something akin to “operating instructions” about how they should look and behave, creating a world in which they are required to display a constant gruff exterior, and must on no account demonstrate weakness, show softness or reveal emotion.

"The Triumph of Judas Maccabee," by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640).
"The Triumph of Judas Maccabee," by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). Credit: Nantes Museum of Arts

God’s place

The story of Judah Maccabee, son of Mattathias, who led the revolt against the Seleucids, is that of a young, bearded guy, a wizard of military tactics, a sort of second-century B.C.E. combination of General Patton and the Israeli commando Meir Har Zion. He bore the phallic epithet of “Judah the Hammer.” (“Maccabee” derives from the Aramaic maqebba, meaning hammer of war.) Like Thor, only circumcised.

This man’s man led a group of young people, muscular and bearded like him, who did the impossible and overcame the army of an empire. In 165 B.C.E., Mattathias, on his deathbed, named Judah to succeed him in leading the revolt, although he wasn’t the eldest. “As for Judas Maccabeus, he hath been mighty and strong, even from his youth up: let him be your captain, and fight the battle of the people,” he explained (1 Maccabees 2). And afterward it is said of him, “In his acts he was like a lion, and like a lion’s whelp roaring for his prey” (1 Maccabees 3).

Since the time of King David, the voyeuristic womanizer and slingshot expert with flowing red locks of hair, the Jews – who, how to put it, were not top of the class in sports – hadn’t known an intrepid alpha male role model like this. If he were alive today, Judah the Hammer would have long since been the star of an advertising campaign for Elite black coffee or Goldstar beer.

The fundamentalist, militaristic elements did not disappear even after the Hasmonean revolt succeeded, when the dynasty fathered by Mattathias established a violent and benighted regime that survived for 80 years. One can only surmise how low the status of women in a country like that fell. In the Hasmoneans’ state, governed by halakha, the high priest of the Temple was also the supreme military commander, and the boundaries between religion, state and army disappeared entirely. Mattathias’ offspring conquered more and more territories in the land, Judaized it by the sword, converting their neighbors by coercion. They formed a mercenary army, which, for all we know, they thought of as “the world’s most moral army.”

John Hyrcanus, who ruled from 134 to 104 B.C.E., circumcised hundreds of thousands of Edomites by force. Alexander Jannaeus, one of his successors, massacred hundreds of Jews (followers of the Pharisees, representatives and shapers of Judaism), determined that he was above all forms of law and razed every city whose inhabitants refused to convert. Aristobulus and Hyrcanus II were full-fledged despots who enslaved citizens and committed acts of murder left and right. They brought about the final decline of the Hasmonean state, in which moral degradation and internecine conflicts spread like cancerous growths, until it fell like a ripe fruit into the hands of the Romans.

Despite the state's corruption and shortcomings, you might expect that Jewish tradition would still acclaim this story of military success, fueled by love of God, that led to the establishment of a sovereign Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel – the only one between the destruction of the First Temple and the creation of the State of Israel. But our sages actually preferred to bury the story of the Maccabees’ heroism, and it is barely mentioned in the Mishna (which has a bizarre story about a camel that was burned by a Hanukkah menorah).

This lacuna has elicited a number of explanations from scholars. One of these cites the abject failure of the uprisings that followed: the Great Revolt that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and the Bar-Kokhba revolt that occurred 60 years later and ended in a defeat involving unprecedented human loss and property destruction among the Jews. The sages apparently did not want to play up the Maccabees' successes in light of these subsequent failures, or to encourage additional, risky uprisings. Some say that another reason for this approach lies in the fact that there is no divine intervention in 1 Maccabees: God is pushed to the margins of the campaign and the tremendous military victory is achieved without his help. (This problem was solved when the Talmud, which was codified in about 500 C.E., added the tale of the long-lasting cruse of oil and thereby gave full credit to God.)

The Maccabees, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1493).
The Maccabees, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1493).Credit: Hartmann Schedel

The Books of the Maccabees were preserved for centuries by the Christian church, which hooked into the martyrdom ethos and transformed the image of Judah into a symbol of heroism and religious zealotry. Along with Joshua Bin Nun and King David, he is one of the Nine Worthies of the Middle Ages, who are meant to serve as an example for every knight.

Among Diaspora Jewry, Hanukkah was also shunted to the margins, and again, the element the rabbis preferred to emphasize was the flask of oil and the divine intervention. Today the story of the military-masculine-national heroism contradicts the Haredi ethos, which finds heroism in the study of the Gemara: in the spirit and not in the body.

In an article he published in 2013 in Haaretz (Hebrew), philosopher Moshe Halbertal explained the concept of masculinity accepted in the Jewish tradition as follows: “One of the epithets for the people of Israel in the Bible is tola’at Ya’akov [“worm of Jacob”]. The midrash grasped this surprising and peculiar image as a comparison with a worm that eats away at the large cedar and brings it down. As with a worm, the power of the people of Israel lies only in the mouth, in prayer and study. Anyone who enters a beit midrash [Jewish study hall] and observes the people in it, understands how far the military way of life is from the way that yeshiva students stand, walk, shake hands and speak.”

Book and sword

The Zionist movement extricated the legend of the Hasmoneans from the recesses of oblivion, placing the emphasis on the tale’s heroic-nationalist motifs. Particularly after the Holocaust, Zionism looked high and low for episodes from Jewish history that would be appropriate for the image of the “new Jew” who takes his fate in his hands, in order to erase from the collective memory the ostensibly flaccid character of the Diaspora Jew with the shtetl aura, who “went like sheep to the slaughter.”

Hanukkah was soon envisioned as a national holiday celebrating courageous Jews who battled the forces of evil and triumphed in a national war of liberation, and in this way was blurred the religious-zealous dimension of the revolt and of the Hasmonean state. The ideal of a martyr’s death gave way to death for the sake of the homeland in the “It is good to die for our country” tradition. The Maccabees thus became part of a series of legends that were adapted in one way or another to the Zionist ideal, among them the tales of the Bar-Kokhba revolt and the fall of Masada.

Thus, the fighters of the so-called 1948 generation termed themselves the “great-grandchildren of the Maccabees.” David Shimoni, a leading poet of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine, wrote in one of his works how, “1948 lights another menorah… I see the great-grandchildren of the Maccabees… They are fighting, the grandsons of the Hasmoneans, a war of heroism and holiness… the Maccabees of 1948.”

Poster for the 1949 Young Maccabee torch race. The movement’s anthem includes lines such as “The Maccabees are all of us here.”
Poster for the 1949 Young Maccabee torch race. The movement’s anthem includes lines such as “The Maccabees are all of us here.” Credit:

To this day, on Memorial Day, schoolchildren attach to their white shirts a sticker with an image of a red flower called “Blood of the Maccabees,” in the wake of a legend to the effect that this flower blooms in every spot where a drop of Maccabean blood touched the ground.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a point of referring to IDF soldiers as the “new Maccabees.” Two years ago, he stated at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony, “I would remind all those who are trying to rewrite history today: The Maccabees were not Palestinians, they were Jews, brothers, fighters. What heroism, what pride. And we, in the spirit of the Maccabees, are transforming Israel into a very strong country, a rising world force!”

Hanukkah songs, such as “Mi Yimalel” (“Who can recount the heroism of Israel”), about the hero who arises in every generation and redeems the people (“Maccabee as savior and deliverer, and in our day the whole of Israel will unite, rise up and be redeemed”), transmit that message precisely. There is also “We have come the darkness to dispel,” which became the unofficial anthem of neighborhood activists in demonstrations against the presence in Israel of asylum seekers from African countries.

Max Nordau, who at the Second Zionist Congress, in 1898, urged the shaping of a new Jewish masculinity – “muscular Jewry” – also adopted the myth of the Maccabees. It went hand in hand with the vision of the physically and spiritually powerful Jew who would fulfill the aims of Zionism in the Land of Israel. Under his inspiration, the Maccabee sports movement was established, which initiated torch races and the Maccabiah Games, a Jewish version of the Olympics (the Maccabean opponents of the Hellenists must have turned over in their graves).

When members of the Young Maccabee youth movement sing their anthem, they point three fingers aloft, symbolizing their commitment to “defend my people, my country and my language.” The anthem includes lines such as “The Maccabees are all of us here,” “Here we fought, here we triumphed, here our strength will yet be heightened,” and “The pillar of cloud is behind us, make way for the Maccabees.” The turnabout was complete: The people of the book had become the people of the sword and of volcanic masculinity, and the gentle prodigy of the “worm of Jacob” was abandoned for good.

In the last century, the Jewish people has celebrated the Hanukkah holiday, which assumed a pyromaniac, consumerist mien. Disconsolate parents are compelled to watch their children perform in raucous plays, to spin the dreidel and can anticipate weeks of heartburn caused by eight days of eating chunks of deep-fried dough bursting with cheap jam and covered with powdered sugar.

"Martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons." Woodcut after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872).
"Martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons." Woodcut after a drawing by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872).Credit: ZU_09 / Getty Images

Murderous women

The story of the Maccabees is perhaps about masculinity, but a number of women are also mentioned in it. They, unfortunately, are revealed to be even more extreme and murderous than the men – one of them, for example, eagerly slaughters her children for the sanctification of God. Their characters only affirm and multiply the violent, nationalism-dripping ethos, without offering any real alternative to the concept of toxic masculinity.

Take, for example, the story of Judith (Yehudit), “daughter of Yohanan,” who in some of the sources is said to be the sister of Judah Maccabee. She is a Jewish femme fatale. According to the legend, she took advantage of her beauty to seduce the commander of the Greek army, fed him cheese to make him thirsty, and after he drank wine and fell asleep, decapitated him. The story appears originally in the Book of Judith but got mixed into Hanukkah. Tradition gives Judith credit for the victory in the Maccabees' campaign, and the Gemara states, “Women must light a Hanukkah candle, because they were part of the same miracle.”

Both the Talmud and the books of 2 and 4 Maccabees contain the story of “the mother and her seven sons,” which became in the tradition a story about the martyrdom of a daughter of Israel. In the period of the edicts impose by Antiochus, the mother and her sons were seized by the Greeks, who forced them to bow down to a statue and eat pork. The sons refused and were tortured and executed before their mother’s eyes. When the turn of the seventh and youngest son came, the mother whispered to him, “My sons, go and say to Abraham your father: ‘You bound one son on an altar, and I bound seven sons.’” When he too was put to death, she jumped from the roof, killing herself. “A still, small voice emerged and said, ‘A happy mother of children.’”

The woman’s name? It doesn’t really matter; she’s just a woman. In some versions she is called Miriam, in others she is Hannah, or her name is not mentioned at all. According to historian Yosef ben Matityahu (Flavius Josephus), she becomes a man. In Jewish tradition, for example, in Kinnot Tisha B'Av (Ashkenazi version), Hannah is considered a true martyr; and in other versions of the story she waxes so enthusiastic that she slaughters her sons herself. In this case it is apparently not enough for a woman to sacrifice herself, her role is both to raise sons and sacrifice them for the noble cause.

Another example of “the heroism of the Jewish woman” is provided by cultural historian Itamar Greenwald in an article he published (in Hebrew) in Haaretz in 2014, in which he cites the testimony of a girl as it appears in the Gemara. She was a survivor of the Hasmonean dynasty whom Herod wanted to marry in order to create Hasmonean legitimacy for himself. However, she rebuffed his courting and climbed up to a roof where she declared that Herod was a slave and his Judaism was in doubt. She then jumped from the roof and died.

An image of Queen Shlomzion Alexandra, published by Guillaume Rouille.
An image of Queen Shlomzion Alexandra, published by Guillaume Rouille.Credit:

In a 1964 article in the periodical Mahanayim, researcher Shlomo Ashkenazi summed up the subject: “The Jewish woman passed the test, preserved her honor and her personal and national value, the respect of generations and the glory of morality, showing that she was cast in the forge of purity and heroism alike.” At Hanukkah, the Jewish community of Tunisia marks Id al-Banath (feast of the women) to denote female heroism in the Jewish tradition as it is reflected in the stories of Yael, Hannah, Yehudit, Bruria and Esther. The role of the women here is clear: to murder, to commit suicide and to seduce or to slaughter their sons to sanctify God’s name and defend the homeland. Only in this way will they be remembered by Jewish history as heroines.

But there is also a different model of feminine-Jewish leadership, one that hovers on the fringes of history – a woman who offered an alternative to male violence: Queen Shlomzion Alexandra, who rose to power after the death of Alexander Jannaeus, her husband, and was one of the few queens in Jewish history (along with Atalia, Ahab’s daughter) who reigned alone.

In contrast to the period of rule of her husband and sons, Shlomzion was perceived as moderate, and her nine-year reign is described as a time of peace and economic prosperity, in which the land knew no wars. It’s unfortunate that of all the role models that comprise the myth of the Hasmoneans, precisely that of Shlomzion was excluded from the Zionist ethos. It wouldn’t hurt any of us to learn from her.

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