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Did the Maccabees deserve their brutal end?

The Hanukkah story's heroes tried to use political force to impose 'spiritual' Jewish standards. That was doomed to fail then just as it is today
Detail from 'The Story of Hanukkah' by Ori Sherman. (via Facebook)
Detail from 'The Story of Hanukkah' by Ori Sherman. (via Facebook)

One of the more puzzling elements of the Hanukkah story pertains to the fate of the family of Maccabees who led the revolt against the Greek occupation, allowing the Jews to retake control for the next 200 years.

As history relates, the Hashmonai family was largely responsible for saving the Jewish people and ensuring that the Torah would remain a vibrant force transmitted to future generations. But despite their righteousness and piety, four of the Maccabean sons were killed in battle and the Talmud relates that, in fact, the entire family was killed or forced into slavery.

The sages have grappled with this bitter fate and tried to understand how a family so associated with saving our people and our faith was condemned to such a brutal end. Two answers are given, one fairly straightforward, and the second reflective of a lesson that remains as relevant today as it did all those centuries ago.

The first basic answer is that the kingdom was intended to remain in the hands of the tribe of Judah, and the Maccabees failed to transfer that power accordingly. The second answer emanates from the fact that the Maccabees belonged to the caste of kohanim (priests) and the role of kohanim was to protect the sanctity of the people through spiritual means – political control was never intended to be their purview.

Both answers have merit, but one may be left wondering whether either explanation satisfies the level of punishment whereby a family recognized as one of the most heroic in our people’s history would be completely wiped out for these transgressions. Is that a proportional response? Perhaps if the sins were ones which halacha allows the death penalty, we could conceivably understand, but few would argue that that is what was being done by the Maccabees to deserve such a tragic end to their dynasty.

I believe that another explanation is therefore in order.

Torah values are designed to positively impact the world as a whole and the Jewish world in particular. At the same time, ruling governments need to enact laws and controls that are by definition political, legal, and even coercive.

These two ideals are largely incompatible with one another. Torah learning and educating our children in Jewish values cannot be achieved through coercive means. We, and our children, need to believe in and want to embrace these traditions and way of life based on our own free will.

The critical error of the Maccabees was in their failure to separate between these two by trying to impose a spiritual will on the masses. In doing so, they sullied the name of the kohanim by combining political or even militaristic force together with spirituality.

And herein lies a critical lesson that can be applied to these very days.

As is being widely observed and reported, we are witness to political forces working to impose religious values in ways that could certainly lead to coercion. We must keep this lesson learned from the Hashmonaim in our minds. People’s spiritual progress and relation to their faith cannot be imposed with force — whether political or otherwise. If we want to instill Torah values in a way that they will be embraced, it must be done by acting as role models, by showing that the path of Torah is one of justice, integrity, and morality and is relevant for our daily lives.

Striving to lead our society toward that path through coercion has never succeeded before and will certainly not succeed today.

About the Author
Rabbi David Stav is the Chief Rabbi of the City of Shoham, Founder & Chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.
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