It was the epitome of Jewish heroism. Faced with the abyss of Rome, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas bravely rejected the Roman Emperor’s blemished sacrifice to the Temple. Intended to be the ‘smoking gun’ provoking the Jews to show disobedience to Rome, the actions of this rabbi instead provided inspiration for a Jewish rebellion, which against all odds defeated the imperial forces and saved the Temple from destruction. Another victory of the few against the many. A second miracle of Chanukah.
If you feel the story is familiar, that’s because it (partially) happened. But with one difference: this event was highlighted by the Talmud as an example of how the Jews had only themselves to blame for their own destruction. “Through the scrupulousness (or modesty) of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land”, laments the Talmud ironically.
And yet the Chanukah revolt started when Mattityahu refused to offer a sacrifice to the Greek gods, killed the Hellenised Jew who agreed to do so, and the Greek government official present. The subsequent wars ended in a Jewish victory, and so the Maccabees were written in the history books as the archetypal Jewish heroes. But had it led to defeat, and pushed the Greeks to absolutely destroy the Temple, their legacy could have been similar to that of Rabbi Zechariah’s. The margins are fine in the high-stakes game of religious Jews provoking ancient world powers.
Ever since, every Jewish sect and ideological faction has tried to claim the mantle of being the true Maccabees. But can we say with certainty that the Maccabees’ reaction was the correct one – or did they gamble, and get lucky? It’s easy to celebrate Chanukah with hindsight, just as it’s easy to mourn on Tisha B’Av with hindsight.
Living in a time where the Jewishness of the State of Israel is a divisive issue between religious and secular Jews, there is a strong temptation for religious Jews to channel Mattityahu’s zealousness into fighting for Jewish cultural supremacy in today’s westernised world. It is also tempting to view secular Jews as Hellenists, who are ultimately dispensable in terms of the continuity of the Jewish people.
However perhaps it would be wise to temper these lessons from Chanukah with those lessons from Tisha B’Av. Yes, there are times when it’s important to make a stand on an issue, raise the stakes and risk the internal strife that follows. But one should be very wary about doing so: the thread that holds the unity of the Jewish people living in one land can unravel quicker than often expected.
We should also not forget how Chanukah ultimately turned into Tisha B’Av. After the initial euphoria of the Maccabees’ great victories, the Hasmonean dynasty turned into a corrupt regime beset by internal in-fighting. It reached its end when there was a civil war between two brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, who both claimed the throne. Inviting the Roman Emperor Pompey to arbitrate between the two, Judea submitted itself to the Romans – and never recovered its independence.
Judaism is a religion of balance, and one of the many expressions of this is that the key festivals all occur in spring or autumn – times when the seasons are in balance. Only two festivals take place in the extremities of the year: Chanukah in the depths of winter and Tisha B’Av at the height of summer.
Whereas holidays such as Pesach and Sukkot teach us how to live our lives in a more wholesome way, Chanukah and Tisha B’Av give us unique – and jarring – perspectives on Jewish history and lessons for the future. Taken in isolation, they could lead to unintended consequences. Taken together, we are reminded to think twice, and bear in mind the merits and demerits of acting with zealousness and modesty in the high-stakes game of building our modern Jewish state.