Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel

The maccabees and the summer saints

The City of Jerusalem, photo Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel
The City of Jerusalem, photo Alexander Winogradsky Frenkel

In midsummer, the Orthodox Churches commemorate the Holy Maccabees who fought and sacrificed their lives to resist the idolatrous and pagan pressure of the Greeks who wanted to impose their pagan rules and ways of life (non-Christians, this happened before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth). The churches have recognized the full validity and divine inspiration of the Commandments. Jews and a lot of people think that Christian communities would rather erase the practice of Jewishness.

The conquest of the Greco-Syrians aimed to seize the mental identity, given and nourished by divine principles, and reduce the Jews to a strange “nation” which would be fused into the supra-national body of civilization and mode of Hellenistic and pagan life. On this Monday 14/01 of August 2023, the Orthodox Church curiously admits the practice of Kashrut not only with regard to dietary regulations, but all aspects of moral, social, economic, personal, family, inter-family, and societal principles defined by Jewish tradition over time.

The “Mitzvot” as they were known and in force in the first century. Because the Churches are slow in updating evolution, the 613 Mitzvot have not changed basically. This may be very difficult to understand for the present-day Churches and faithful.

In 2003, my parishioners in Jerusalem asked to meet Patriarch Irenaios. They explained that many of the worshipers came from the former Soviet Union or Eastern European countries and that many were born “Jews.” Some of their family members are Jews and had not become Christians. Thus, they used to gather with their families for Pesach/Passover or by the time of Rosh Hashanah. Orthodox Christians must share meals and customs that do not correspond to the Orthodox rules in force during Great Lent. In fact, the Passover holiday is always celebrated during this long period of fasting and introspection that leads to the celebration of Christian Passover.

Our records show that the patriarch and his staff were surprised (and scared) by the request. But they understood certain aspects of this question because they had in mind the life of the Maccabees and their fight for True Faith, which in the Hebrew tradition corresponds to “Emunah Shlemah/אמונה שלמה”.

The Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus Epiphanes II decided to annihilate the Jews and this reminds the struggle conducted by the Maccabees. Good enough. But above all, the Jews were terribly passive at this time in history. They engaged in much more pleasant tra-la-la earthly pleasures, hobbies, and lifestyles with a lot of Greek and pagan customs. This infatuation seriously distanced them from the true search for meaning and the fulfillment of the Mitzvot/Commandments. This conduct has been a constant temptation for the Jews…

Certain areas and strata of society are so spoiled that they simply cannot see that they are trapped in the downfall of continuous moral breakdown processes. Greek culture had spread throughout the ancient world, bringing the prestige of language, culture, fine lifestyles, ancient salads… dancing, love styles, and music. All of this interfered with a process that may have slowed the observance of Jewish traditions and Temple services. It was seductive to discuss philosophy, poetry, Greek arts, and sophisticated educational systems. At least Greek culture focuses on beauty, carelessness, and the hedonistic stances of a savory art of living that knows how to be cruel and murderous with elegance and snottiness.

Some Jews had undergone surgery – rejecting Judaism and the sign of circumcision – to participate, for example, in the Olympic Games. Freedom of existence often leads to denying the essential character of certain Mitzvot for reasons of safety or desire to comply with some trendy tendencies. The same tendencies exist in the Christian and secular world.

The Maccabees acted as real fighters but in a way quite similar to the despotism imposed by the then-hated polytheistic Greeks. They did not fight Hellenistic culture or morality. They fought idolatry. The problem was that the Syrian-Greek emperor had decided to destroy the Jewish way of living by imposing a ban on three “Mitzvot” / Fundamental Torah Commandments:

a) To cancel the sanctification of the New Month (Rosh Chodesh/ראש חודש); b) To abolish the Brit-Milah/ברית מילה (circumcision) as a sign of the Covenant with Abraham; and c) To remove the celebration of Shabbat/שבת, the Day on which the Jewish Community recognizes that God is the Creator of the Universe and that He gave His Law (Torah/תורה) in order to obey and listen to His Will.

The High Priest Matityahu ben Yohanan, of the city of Modi’in, had decided to oppose Antiochus in order to preserve what we call “the values” at present. But the Mitzvot are more than “values”. They embody the Divine Presence among all the living. For him, it was a matter of life and death, of witnessing the truth. They had to resist.

Was it a “national-nationalist” movement? Is it possible to speak of “ethnicity/phyletism” as it is rather fashionable, in particular in the Eastern Orthodox Churches? Worse can be seen in the political and intellectual deregulations, the mental drifts on falsified approaches to history, torn from its coherent chronology of times and delays. We see this in the morbid and insane rantings of Vladimir Putin and the silence of the Orthodox authorities.

The actions taken by the High Priest and his family of Maccabees were primarily aimed at preserving an authentic awareness of the Presence and reality of God, His morals, and His Word. They were able to expel the oppressors after three years of a bitter struggle. Still, victory was essentially a spiritual miracle. They performed a theological act of resistance. They seized the Temple in Jerusalem. They were then obliged to proceed to the purification and re-consecration of the Maqom-מקום/Holy Site.

Communities based on Faith in the One Most High can be destroyed by two different and complementary methods. This concerns the Jewish community as the Christian ones: a) The physical annihilation of the Jews were exterminated during the Second World War at the time of the Holocaust-שואה/Churban/חורבן (reduction to nothing, destruction, catastrophe) as mentioned long before historical time in the Bible, in the short Scroll of Esther. It is the time of Purim. b) Cultural annihilation is often very subtle and often not clear, or confusing. The purification of the Temple by the Hasmoneans shows this particular kind of spiritual behavior centered on God’s Presence and actions. The Name of God is not written in the Scroll of Esther in the Hebrew version contrary to the Greek version. The “silence of tzimtzum/צימצום = absence, disappearance of the Lord” is a problem. God is permanently present over His creation. But humans can get away from Him, which they would hardly admit.

In the Christian world, this is very much like the spiritual resistance of saints and martyrs throughout history, in particular during the 20th century. In Europe – much more than in other continents – certain thinkers resisting nazism are quoted in Europe. The “Shoah” happened after decisions taken by the nazis to exterminate the Jews, indeed. Still, Christians, Sinti-Romas, LGBT individuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled and mentally sick, the Slavs, the communists, and other groups have been deported and assassinated, and burnt in the extermination camps. This is the point of the International Shoah Remembrance Day proposed in 2005 by former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and accepted by the United States.

It is still time to wake up when “post-Soviet fantasized nazism” transforms – these days, more than 80 after the Destruction (Churban-Khurb’n/חורבן) – the physical and ethnic traits of the heroes of the anti-resistance -nazi into abject faces and without morals. Just listen to the declarations of Vladimir Putin and a large number of the members of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Makkabim / מכבים or Maccabees are recognized as saints by the Orthodox (and Catholic) Churches. It is not a paradox. Since the Christian Orthodox and Catholic Bible accepted the Deutero-Canonical Books written in Greek as the Books of Maccabees, the Church commemorates, on August 1st, the sacrifice of a woman and her seven sons who refused to eat pork and transgress the Jewish rules governing purity of food, kashrut.

Solomonia/Shmuni was murdered according to 2 Maccabees ch. 8, with other related accounts in the fourth Book of Maccabees. This means that the Greek attack on the Jews was idolatrous and intended to destroy the commandments of the Torah. Not eating pork is a sign of obedience to the Lord. The command seems “territorial, cultural, anthropological, culinary”. No, it is about resisting apostasy. And the Churches recognize it while keeping it silent, so at the risk of denying themselves and mocking what was at the heart of an exploit for life.

The name Maccabees is considered to mean “Who is a God like you among the gods” in Hebrew (“Mi El kamocha b’elim / מי אך כמוך באלים”), emphasizing the importance of the Oral and Written Laws, the Writings. The canonized Maccabees (we say “glorified” in the Orthodox world) did not agree to transgress the rule of eating kosher. It must be recognized that the Church respects the offering of the Maccabees and the way in which they fought to preserve the Commandments as stated in the Jewish tradition of Gittin 57b.

This compels Jewish and Christian traditions to consider how the giving of the Oral and Written Laws at Sinai also included a strong premonition of the existence of the Messiah and his revelation, whenever it is to happen and be freely “recognized”. This aspect is often rejected by all sides for reasons of phyletism, nationalism, and the exclusion of one or more nations for deviant egocentric privileges. And yet! Last year, the Saint Abraham community of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem – allegedly local for the faithful of Slavic or Romanian languages, celebrated the Saints Maccabees “in the presence of the Consul of Greece in Tel Aviv, Mr. Anastasios Konstantaras, representative of the Ambassador of Greece, Mr. Kyriakos Loukakis. During the Divine Liturgy, the chant was pronounced in Slavonic, Greek, Romanian, and Arabic, by the members of the Russian-speaking Greek Orthodox parish, under the direction of their hegumen, Archbishop Aristovoulos of Madaba, who also pronounced a sermon in Russian. (sic, “” press release of 08.17.22).

Where is the Hebraism of the High Priest Eleazar, and the seven Maccabees who resisted the Judaic and Hebrew heritage of Revelation? As if the Maccabees were to be dissolved, in the land of Abraham, by an imported culture at a time when Israel exists and when the true Christian tradition insists on the validity of Hebrew universality?

However, in one the Greek Meteora monasteries, it is possible to see beautiful icons of Greek philosophers: Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato, and Plutarch. Indeed, the Greek Orthodox Church considers that anticipated the coming of Jesus of Nazareth and the Messiah as confessed by Christendom. This should imply that their books and ethics do not supersede the five books of Moses, the books of the Prophets, and the writings of the scriptural tradition. This is not evident at present for the Orthodox Churches.

The first stage of the struggle led by the Maccabees ended on 25 Kislev and this is one of the explanations given for the name of the Feast: Hanukkah, that is to say, “HaNUKH/הנוח” = “they are rested [on the KH = 25כ”ה]”. In fact, the word is mentioned in the Second Book of Maccabees since Hanukkah is “dedication, inauguration” (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 21b). This small oil lamp was found unexpectedly. Could this be compared to the hymn we sing during Passover: “Dayeinu/דינו”: “If God had done such and such a miracle… that would have been enough”?

The two summer dates of 9 and 15 Av recall the anguish and the expectation of a repair of the Temple, between “destruction” and the “love” which banishes all the barriers between the tribes in order to guarantee the fertility and the survival of Israel.

It is the same among the Nations. The Tomb of Jerusalem is empty. The Holy Sepulcher is called “Naos/Ναος = Temple” in Greek or Place of the Resurrection: “Anastasis/Αναστάσης. It faces the Temple Mount.

Two places awaiting justice and true, full love. In these ancient days of the Maccabees, It was enough for the witnesses that only one oil lamp was miraculously burning. Franz Kafka mocked it. The Maccabees fought and rebuilt the Temple. We live in a special epoch, tekufah/תקופה or “eon/αιών” as the Greeks say. A long indefinite period that shakes history and destiny.

In this regard, the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are interesting: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its taste, what can it be seasoned with? It is no longer fit for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city located on a mountain cannot be hidden. So your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:13-17).  

About the Author
Alexander is a psycho-linguist specializing in bi-multi-linguistics and Yiddish. He is a Talmudist, comparative theologian, and logotherapist. He is a professor of Compared Judaism and Christian heritages, Archpriest of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and International Counselor.
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