Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story. A righteous Judaean clan in the 2nd Century BCE led a vigorous uprising against Greek- influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism. The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state. A small vial of oil found in the Temple, when no other could be located, burned for eight days, becoming an eternal symbol of the miraculous regeneration of the Jewish people. The Maccabees, the name of the guerilla army, led by the five Hasmonean brothers who were its successive commanders, have gone down in history as symbols of Jewish endurance and revival.
But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath which have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels. The first is that the war that Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.
With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 BCE and the complete defeat ( although “annihilation” would be a better description) of the Hellenizers twenty-two years later, the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized as ethnach and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century.
After Simon and his two oldest sons were murdered by a son-in-law in 134 BCE, Simon’s third son John Hyrcanus( 134 BCE -104 BCE) took power. A man in the mold of his father, he was an able administrator and a brilliant military tactician who extended Judean rule to many neighboring tribes, forcibly converting whole populations. Although his 30 year reign has been looked upon kindly by Jewish history, the fact that Hyrcanus took a Greek name as monarchical title, was a portent of things to come.
It was during the reign of his son and successor Alexander Janneus (104 BCE – 76 BCE) that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects such as the Pharisees and Essenes. He carefully aligned himself with the upper class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshipers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot. The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war which resulted in 50,000 Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.
The Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judaea after the death of Alexander Janneus for another forty years – in and out of civil war – until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 BCE – 4 BCE), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.
The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism. History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent. The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors. They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.
Many of the world’s democracies have much to learn from the terrible events of 2,000 years ago. As we know, the institution of the modern democratic state is only of relatively recent origin. Thousands of years of political struggle against oppression and denial of human rights were necessary to achieve the currently unprecedented level of human dignity enjoyed by individuals and societies around the world. But we have also seen how revolutions and their movements, seeking at their core to elevate human dignity in much the same way, have achieved exactly the opposite. The French Revolution, Russian Revolution and more recent Iranian Revolution are all examples of the absolute corruption of ideals and abandonment of principles following an accession to power. If there is one commonality to these historical events it is the notion that tyranny is not exclusive and can be the stock-in-trade of oppressors and reformers alike.
Ancient Judaea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to glean from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans. As a country which formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself. Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure which places 60% of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1% of its population and a poverty level which hovers around 33%, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles. The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza in 2005 and last week’s disturbing IDF attack upon a Jewish owned building in Hebron, are sad examples of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect and protection of Jewish dignity, life and property.
It is important to remember that men cannot predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated. But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation? Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt. And in large part it succeeded. But the nagging question remains – why did things go so terribly wrong in ancient Judaea within such a relatively short period of time? This Channukah, that question, given many of our current global challenges, should be firmly on our minds, as much as it is on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2000 years ago.