By Avi Davis
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 guerrilla 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 a few things have been forgotten. 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. Simon, the lone surviving brother became ethnarch after 34 years of civil strife.
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. Although his 30 year reign has been looked upon kindly by Jewish history, the fact that Hyrcanus took a Greek name as a 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 Feast of Tabernacles 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 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 has evaporated. 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.
Ancient Judaea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, has much to glean from the historical trajectory of the Hasmoneans. As a country which formed 66 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, it may have lost its bearings. Indeed, for the past few decades, Israel progressively lost its grip on its identity as a Jewish state, buffeted as it has been by post-Zionist academics, a universalist Supreme Court chief justice and a relentless campaign by Palestinians who claim that a Jewish state has no right to exist. The government response to this campaign of delegitimization- the Israel National Identity Bill, which seeks to reaffirm the Jewish identity of the state – has led to the collapse of the Netanyahu government and will become a major issue in the forthcoming Israeli elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be no Judah the Maccabee but his instincts are very much in keeping with his ancestor’s desire to revivify the Jewish spirit of the land, even though he may realize that in doing so he might run afoul of abstract democratic ideals. But not to do so runs the risk of fragmentation of the state over time into a multicultural polyglot, portending a future in which Jews may one day be discriminated against and even persecuted in the very country designed as their refuge.
It is important to remember that leaders 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 Chanukah, 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.