Hanukkah for Dummies, From Judah Maccabee to the Days of Donald Trump

Not only latkes: U.S. ambassador-designate David Friedman reflects the holiday spirit when he says J Street aren't Jewish.

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A reproduction of 'The Maccabees,' a 1842 painting by Wojciech Korneli Stattler.
The victorious Maccabees wrote history. But in the end, their Hasmonean Kingdom lasted only 80 years.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Christmas and Hanukkah fall on the same day this year, as they do every 19 years when the lunar and solar years align. There is a historical irony here, because if not for Christianity, we would have known very little about the Maccabees and their second century BCE revolt against the Seleucid Empire. The main historical report contained in the Book of Maccabees was excluded from the Jewish canon, along with the rest of the so-called External Books. For many centuries, Jews were forbidden from reading them at all. Were it not for their inclusion in the Christian Old Testaments, Judah’s war against King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BCE would have remained more of a foggy mythical legend than a well-documented historical account.

Scholars have debated for centuries why the story of the Maccabees was shunned. Some cite “technical reasons”: Jewish leaders simply wanted to keep Jews away from the External Books that were not included in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), especially as these had subsequently been included in the Christian canon. The authoritative first book of Maccabees, which was originally written in a Hebrew version that has been lost, did not fit any of the three categories of the Jewish Bible’s mold: it has no miracles, no prophets and no words of wisdom. Devout Jews were not pleased with the fact that contrary to Maccabees II, Maccabees I made no mention of divine intervention: 600 years after the fact, the Talmudists came up with the concept of the little oil cruse that could, so that Hanukkah would have its own godly miracles.

There were other elements of the Hanukkah story that made Diaspora sages and rabbis uneasy. The decision of the Hasmonean High Priests to assume princely powers was viewed as a blasphemous violation of the religious separation of powers. Judah Maccabee’s policy of conquering areas adjacent to Judea, including Samaria, Galilee and Edom, and forcing their non-Jewish populations to convert on pain of death was deemed anti-Jewish by Diaspora Judaism, which feared proselytizing by others and rejected it in itself. The cruelty of the Maccabees, which seemed no less fierce than that of their oppressors, made Diaspora Jews squirm, so they tried to rein it in: this was not the image of the Jew they wished to project.

Most experts agree, however, that it was the very concept of Jewish revolt against powerful empires that was the main problem. The Roman Empire, which had replaced the Seleucids as occupiers of Palestine, continuously fought off Jewish uprisings – from the Great Revolt in 66 CE through the lesser known but possibly much more violent Diaspora rampage known as the Kitos War in 115 CE up to the iconic Bar Kochba uprising in 132 CE that ended at Masada – regarded the story of the Maccabees as subversive literature that kept the Jewish natives restless, so they banned it. Jewish leaders agreed: Jewish rebellions did not end well. They had brought about the destruction of both the First and Second Temples and the forced exile of Jews from their homeland. Until the Zionists rebelled against the Diaspora in the 19th Century, armed Jewish uprisings were considered an existential threat, primarily for the Jews.

Zionists adopted the story of the Maccabees and upgraded the status of Hanukkah, which had hitherto been deemed a somewhat lesser holiday compared to Passover, Rosh Hashanah and even Sukkot. (According to Maccabees II, Hanukkah was actually invented to replace Sukkot – after traditional Jews were barred from carrying out rituals on the Temple Mount. That’s one reason Hanukkah has eight days, like Sukkot, and not because of any miraculous oil cruse). For Zionists, Hanukkah provided both inspiration and a blueprint: The Maccabees’ brazen bravery, Judah’s innovative guerrilla tactics, the deft diplomacy that yielded an anti-Seleucid alliance with Rome, and, of course, the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land. That it was all carried out with God’s blessing, perhaps, but without his active intervention may have displeased the rabbis, but for the largely secular and anti-religious Zionist Jews it was a perfect fit.

At the same time, for completely different reasons, Hanukkah was making a big comeback in the United States, from second tier status in Jewish festivals to a competitor for the very top. East European immigrants played up the festival in the early 20th century as a countermeasure against their German Jewish predecessors in America, who were increasingly celebrating Christmas even when they stopped short of converting to Christianity altogether. For many secularized American Jews, Hanukkah was an easier festival to mark, as it lacked the religious restrictions that accompanied most of the others. The Zionization of most American Jews following the rebirth of Israel in 1948 and their sense of redemption in the wake of Israel’s resounding victory in the Six Day War in 1967 boosted the Maccabees’ status even further: they became modern Jewish idols.  

In recent decades, the images of Zionism as a rebellion against evil world powers and as a few against many have receded. The spirit of Hanukkah is mostly expressed in gift-giving in America and garish children’s music festivals in Israel, as well as in inventive variations of traditional fare, which some consider sacrilegious, such as latkes with kale or low-calorie jelly doughnuts, our sufganiyot. The classic Hanukkah narrative has been supplemented with messages with universal appeal, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. U.S. President Barack Obama said at his last Hanukkah reception at the White House this month that the lighting of candles fulfills Isaiah’s “light unto the nations” prophecy. It wasn’t clear whether he was being ironic.

In the age of Trump, right wing zealots who see the Hasmonean victory as divine vindication are likely to feel ever more empowered.Credit: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Hanukkah, you probably know, also has darker sides that have been conveniently ignored by the establishment but which seem to be getting more and more relevant as time goes by. The late and great professor Yisayahu Leibovitch said it plainly in 1980: the Maccabees did not wage war against the Greeks; they waged war against Jewish Hellenists. In fact, the uprising didn’t start in battle against the Seleucids but as an internal insurgence, carried out by conservative and traditional rural Jews in the countryside against urban Jewish Hellenists in Jerusalem and other cities, who sought to reach an accommodation with the Seleucids. They wanted to incorporate Hellenic concepts of aesthetics and science into traditional Judaism so that it could better cope with the modern world.

The poorer farmers and laborers resented the liberties that the Hellenists elites were taking with religion and ritual. They detested their condescension and their cosmopolitan ways. They were incensed at the growing income gap, which compounded itself many times over when Jason the high priest was allowed to open a gymnasium in Jerusalem and to gain the city the status of a Greek polis named Antiochia. One of the outcomes of the move was the creation of a new kind of citizenship, which was granted only to Hellenized Jews, and the subsequent seizure of lands and assets owned by newly pronounced non-citizens in other areas of Judea. 

Of course it’s a world apart, but the basic array of forces nonetheless conjure the kind of pent up popular resentment of more conservative, more religious, more provincial and more insular common folk against liberal, globalized, intellectual elites of the kind that has given us the Tea Party, Brexit, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The simmering pot inevitably boiled over. Dismayed by Seleucid efforts to help their besieged Hellenist allies and provoked by attempts to stifle Jewish ritual, the Maccabees went on a rampage. Before they tangled with Seleucid garrisons, they carried out wholesale massacres of Hellenized communities, most of which regarded themselves as Jewish.

Although the violent nature of the uprising has been pushed to the sidelines, the Book of Maccabees, which was written by a Hasmonean sympathizer, makes no effort to conceal the carnage. Judah struck down the sinners, pursued and tracked them and “consigned them to flames,” the book says. “He went through the towns of Judah, eliminating the irreligious from them,” it adds. After cleansing the country of blasphemers, defeating the Seleucids and retaking the desecrated Temple, the Maccabees instituted a strict theocracy in which religion and state were fused into one. The Hasmonean Kingdom was, in many ways, the stuff that modern national-religious dreams are made of.

The derogatory Hebrew term for a Hellenized Jew, “Mityaven”, has survived for two millennia as a catchall epithet meant for those who strayed from the camp. It is a word heard often in ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist circles. Under the right circumstances, anyone who champions Western philosophy or promotes Western values such as universal human rights is liable to be called a mityaven, as is anyone who preaches equality between Jews and non-Jews or advocates a peace deal with the Palestinians at the expense of the Greater Land of Israel. When longtime leftist icon and politician Yossi Sarid died last year, former Kahanist lawmaker Michael Ben Ari wrote of him: “He is a symbol of the enemies of Judaism, the Mityaven who is upset by the salvation of Israel, who identifies with our enemies, who rejoices at our defeat.” As the candle lighting prayer says of the miracles preformed by God: “In those days, at this time.”

The anti-Hellenist sentiment drives Israel’s Religious Affairs Minister David Azulai to declare that Reform Jews aren’t Jewish at all. It is the sentiment Netanyahu tried to convey when he said two decades earlier “leftists have forgotten what it is to be Jews.” It is the same outlook that spurs Trump’s ambassador designate to Israel David Friedman to label J Street as “not Jewish” and to double down when asked to retract. Asked about the fate that should await latter day mityavnim, radical Rabbi Dov Lior, spiritual guide for Israel’s radical right, wrote that “they should be eradicated” just like in the days of the Hasmoneans.

The Hellenists did not live to tell their tale: the victorious Maccabees wrote history. Their account continues to exert an influence 2000 years later. Right wing zealots see the Hasmonean victory as divine vindication, the removal of Hellenized enemies as just deserts and themselves as heirs to the Maccabee legacy. In the age of Trump, they are likely to feel ever more empowered. Unlike the Jewish leaders of the Diaspora in the first centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple who feared for their continued existence, however, they tend to ignore the fact that the Hasmonean Kingdom lasted only 80 years, that it spurred further futile revolts and that it ultimately led to the elimination of Jewish sovereignty for almost 2000 years.

Trump's pick for Israel envoy David Friedman, who labeled J Street as 'not Jewish'. Credit: Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP via AP

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