A Cynic’s Chanukah

The traditional narrative is that Chanukah records the magnificent victory of Judah Maccabee over Antiochus Epiphanes of Greek Syria in 165 BCE. He cleared the Greeks out of the Temple and the Land of Israel. He gained independence which led to the establishment of a Hasmonean dynasty that lasted until the Roman destruction in 70CE. Chanukah lasts eight days because when Judah entered the Temple, the only vial of “kosher” oil left to keep the perpetual light on the Menorah burning, lasted for eight days until new supplies could arrive.

The reality is not so simple.  The two main sources, the Books of the Maccabees and Josephus do not mention the miracle of the oil. The eight days of Chanukah simply replicate the eight days of dedication for the Tabernacle and then the First Temple. And the Talmud doesn’t mention Judah Maccabee.

The rabbis of the Talmud focused on the miracle of the oil rather than the military victory. It is true that by the time of the compilation of the liturgy, the Al HaNissim prayer in the Amidah or the Grace After Meals, refers proudly to Matityahu, the son of Yochanan as the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, and indeed says they overthrew the mighty, the arrogant, and the impure. But who Matityahu was is not clear and whether he ever was the High priest is doubtful.

After Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, his empire was divided up between his generals. The Jews of Israel fell under the changing authority of either the Ptolemies, based in Egypt, or the Seleucids of Syria. As a rule, they both followed the Alexandrian policy of allowing subject nations religious independence so long as they towed the political line. The Jews were represented diplomatically to the outside world by their High Priest. The High Priesthood was a political as much as a religious position and whoever bribed more was likely to get it. Wealthy and aristocratic, most of the priesthood was pro-Greek and eager to imitate them. It was the priests who introduced the circus and theatres to Jerusalem and who spent their time cultivating Greek potentates, manners, and ideas.

The Jews might well have assimilated altogether had it not been for Antiochus IV. Then as now most Jews found it easier to drift away from the limitations of their religion. The Greek empire was so much larger, offered so many more opportunities than a small land locked religiously restricted community. Why did Antiochus, stupidly, do the one thing that unites Jews, to try to tell them what to do?

He had been kept as hostage in Rome after his father had backed the wrong political horse. You might say it was like being sent to a Spartan boarding school at a very young age, enough to disturb the sanest of men. He took the title Epiphanes, ‘the glorious’, but his nickname was Epimanes, ‘the idiot’. He was an arrogant, stubborn, emotionally stunted megalomaniac. If only he’d have left the Jews alone to assimilate he’d have got his way in the end. But he insisted on trying to force the issue.

There are plenty of other theories as to why he decided to despoil the Jewish state and attack its religious institutions. In 167, having looted the Temple, he ordered a statue of Zeus to be erected and banned the practice of Jewish Law. Hellenizers, like High Priest Jason, sided with the Greeks. Others, like Onias (Honi), came out in opposition. But it was Matityahu, a country priest, and his five sons who started the rebellion by killing a Greek officer who was trying to enforce the king’s orders. They fled to the hills and launched a guerrilla campaign against far superior forces. Matityahu died in 166 and it was left to his son Judah, who acquired the name Maccabee, ‘the hammer’. Reminds me of Edward Ist  of England who became known as the ‘Hammerer of the Scots. That was after he had expelled his Jews from England, another dumb move.

Judah’s guerrilla strategy enabled him to win a string of modest victories. At the battle of Nahal Haramiah he defeated a small Syrian force under the command of Apollonius, governor of Samaria, who was killed. After this, recruits flocked to the Jewish cause. Then Judah ambushed a small force commanded by a local general, Seron, near Bet Choron. At Emmaus, Judah blocked the pass and forced the Seleucid forces, led by captains Nicanor and Gorgias, to retreat to wait for reinforcements. Top General Lysias, was on his way to sort things out, but he was called back home immediately to support the king, leaving Gorgias to try and find Judah’s guerrillas. While Gorgias was searching for him in the mountains, Judah made a surprise attack upon the Seleucid camp forcing the commander to withdraw to the coast.

Back Gorgias came, via a different route, and marched on Judeah from the south. Once again, Judah succeeded in blocking their advance at Beth Zur. The fact was that none of the major Greek armies came down to supress the revolt. They didn’t take it seriously at first. But there were other greater problems. Internal political rivalries and the threat from the North that kept the main armies at home. The victories were small guerrilla attacks. Nevertheless, they allowed Judah to enter Jerusalem, and he purified the Temple on the 25th of Kislev, 164 BCE. But there still remained a Syrian garrison in Jerusalem.

Judah then set about protecting Jews wherever they were attacked by the local Greeks, from Transjordan down to the Ashdod on the coast. But when he laid siege to the Syrian garrison in its fortress of Jerusalem, Lysias got serious. He came with a large army, defeated Judah, and his stronghold of Beth-Zur was compelled to surrender. Lysias went on to Jerusalem. However, just as capitulation seemed imminent, he had to withdraw once again to Antioch because of political intrigue. So, he decided to propose a peaceful settlement, which was concluded at the end of 163 BCE. Lysias restored religious freedom and officially ceded the Temple to the Jews. It was an achievement for Judah. But it was hardly a comprehensive military victory.

Judah was now free to deal with his local Jewish enemies (things never change). He turned on the Hellenizing priests. They appealed to the Syrians to come back, but there was more chaos in Antioch. Antiochus was removed. The new king, Demetrius, sent reinforcements led by Bacchides to support his candidate for High Priest. He too had to withdraw because of politics at home, and a smaller force led by Nicanor was left behind. Judah managed to surround him, and Nicanor was killed (and Nicanor’s Day became a national holiday).

But it was only a matter of time before the main army would return, so Judah made a treaty with Rome in 161. This in the long term signed away independence to the Romans, which certainly did not endear him to later Jewish freedom fighters. Anyway, it failed to stop Demetrius. This time the Syrian forces of 20,000 men were numerically so superior that most of Judah’s men fled, and Judah was killed at Elasa. His body was taken by his brothers from the battlefield and buried in the family tomb at Modi’in.

After several additional years of war under the leadership of two of Matitiyahu’s other sons (Yonathan and Shimon), the Jews achieved qualified independence when Shimon was accepted as the High Priest. But only his son, John Hyrcanus, finally acquired the title of king. All this was no mean achievement, but good fortune and trouble home in Syria played as much a part as fighting prowess. Little wonder then that the rabbis preferred God to Judah, given the deterioration in the Hasmonean dynasty with Herod and his family, and the increasing Roman interference. Judah doesn’t even get one mention in the Talmud.

Everyone takes from the story what he or she wants to. For some it is about the tough Judean underdogs winning against a bigger team. For others it was victory of Jewish sportsmen over the Greek athletes, hence the Maccabiah. The religious prefer the Almighty ensuring our flames do not go out if only we tend them properly. If you are West Bank settler it is all about never giving up and if you are lily livered liberal like me who thinks negotiation might be a better idea (assuming there’s someone prepared to negotiate with you) Chanukah reminds one that the main body of rabbis two thousand years ago thought the same way (except Rebbi Akivah of course). Peace, if it is at all possible, trumps land.

Ever since the debate between Jacob and his sons Shimon and Levi over how to respond to violence after the rape of Dinah, we Jews have been equally split on how to respond to our situation in the world. And now how to deal with the Palestinian issue. We are no more likely to agree than we were then. The only certainty is that a policy based only on aggression and which has no allies, never lasts! Whatever we may think of the Balfour declaration it certainly helped our cause. So have other allies (however unreliable) since.

Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish survival. But to think we can go on living in a bubble without thinking of the wider international issues is insane. Happy Chanukah.

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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