3220 Big Tree Lane, Wilmette, Illinois 60091 Weekday Services: M-Fri: 7:00am/Sun: 9am; Sun - Thu: 7:30 pm

The Mistakes of the Maccabees

By Rabbi Michael Cohen

What is the story of Hanukkah? Is it the story of the miracle of the oil, where one day’s worth of oil miraculously lasts for eight? Or perhaps it’s the story of the few overcoming the many in the name of religious freedom? Perhaps Hanukkah is simply the Jewish winter festival, a celebration of light during the darkest time of the year.

Hanukkah can be all these things, but what I’d like to focus on today is the holiday’s historical legacy. The Maccabees managed to create their own Jewish state in the land of Israel, an achievement so rare that it took another 2000 years for it to be happen again. Was this a state that we as modern Jews  could be proud of? What motivated these rebels to take up arms and fight the world powers of their day?


According to modern scholarship, the story of Hannukah actually began  with Jews fighting other Jews. In the Jerusalem of the 2nd century BCE the office of High Priest could be bought and sold from the regional government. When the high priest Jason was outbid by a rival, he rounded up a small army and tried to secure the Temple by force. Seeing a rebellion on his hands, the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus the IV not only attacked the rebel force but declared a series of restrictions on Judaism designed to turn Jerusalem into a more compliant Greek city-state. Studying and observing the Torah became a crime punishable by death, a punishment which thousands of righteous Jews chose over abandoning their religion. The Temple became a shrine for Zeus. Things were looking very dark for the Jewish people.


Under the banner of restoring the Temple, one of the Hasmonean priests named Matityahu started a campaign against Greek sympathizers with the help of his sons including Judah, also known as Judah HaMaccabbee. They first targeted Hellenized Jews, burning towns and forcibly circumcising the boys they found. The Seleucid troops were called in and Judah won military victory after victory in the areas surrounding Jerusalem. What started as a campaign of fear against Hellenized Jews grew into a full scale regional conflict, with Judah’s relatively small forces outsmarting and outfighting his better-equipped and trained Seleucid opponents.


After three years of struggling against  Judah and his rebel troops, the Seleucids decided to give peace a chance. They offered the rebels everything they wanted. Learning and practicing the Torah would be legalized, and worship in the Temple could go back to the way it was before Zeus got involved. The rebels were even given 30 days in which to accept the terms and receive amnesty. The vast majority of Jews around Jerusalem took the deal, while their Maccabean leaders refused.


Why didn’t the Maccabees agree to these ostensibly favorable terms? One possible reason is they simply didn’t trust the Seleucids and figured it was some kind of trap. Another possibility is that, whatever their originally-stated reasons for rebellion, the Maccabees had no reason to change course now. There is good logic to this approach – without years of losing militarily, who knows if the Seleucids would have ever rescinded their decree outlawing Judaism. The Maccabees were getting a real taste of power, and rather than walk away from it once they got their initial demands, they wanted to see how much more they could get.  When Antiochus IV died 6 months after offering the deal , Judah used the opportunity to take control of Jerusalem and the Temple fortress, ousting the High Priest and rededicating the Temple on the 25th of Kislev. That’s how Hanukkah was born.  


It didn’t take long for the Maccabean thirst for freedom to become a quest  for power. Over their hundred-plus years of rule, the Maccabean kings and queens dispensed the exact same kind of religious intolerance and violence that had led to their revolt against the Seleucids. Judah’s nephew Jonathan Hyrcanus forcibly converted the Edomites to Judaism, a first for a Jewish ruler. He also burned the Samaritans’ Temple on Har Grizim to the ground. All manner of horrors were perpetrated by Hyrcanus’s son Alexander Jannai who according to Josephus, had 800 Pharisees crucified and their children murdered because they dared to disagree with Alexander’s Sadducean interpretation of how to run the Temple. .


Ultimately it  was an internal dispute that led to the downfall of the Maccabean dynasty. In order to resolve a civil war between rival heirs, the Maccabees invited the Romans to Jerusalem. General Pompey marched in and Roman rule came with him.  A Jewish flag wouldn’t fly over Jerusalem for another 2000 years.


The Maccabean story is a mix of hope and disappointment, of religious idealism and mercenary politics and violence. It was fighting between Jews that sparked the original Maccabean revolt, and it was fighting between Jews that caused its legacy to collapse. We had a state of our own, but it was a state that only embodied Jewish ideals when they did not threaten the power of its rulers. Could anyone imagine that the sacrifices offered by a priest who obtained his office through bloodshed gave “a pleasing odor to the Lord?” It was for this very reason that the rabbis were so ambivalent about the Maccabees, emphasizing the miracle of the oil (which first appears in the Talmud at least 400 years after the original events took place) as the reason for Hanukkah and leaving the book  of Maccabees out of the Jewish canon.       

Over the long history of the Jewish people, we’ve had perhaps only five to six hundred years when we had a state to call our own. We are extraordinarily lucky to be living in a time where there is a modern state of Israel; an opportunity for our people to have a role on the international stage and to protect Jewish interests around  the world. There are few things more important than the long-term survival of this Jewish state, as it is inexorably intertwined with the future of the Jewish people.


Hanukkah isn’t just a holiday celebrating our independence, it’s also a cautionary tale. The Maccabees took up arms and fought for independence for the best of reasons; the very survival of their people and way of life were under threat of destruction. Through daring and talent and perhaps even a healthy dose of divine intervention, these ragtag fighters were able to carve out a Jewish state from the rubble of the Seleucid empire. But it didn’t take long for those founding principles to be obscured by the quest to perpetuate power and control, for the Maccabean kings to become the kind of villains their ancestors fought against. Had the Maccabees been better able to live by their core Jewish values , perhaps their state would not have so quickly disintegrated into partisan warfare and destruction.


This past week social media has been all abuzz with John Kerry’s address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S’s decision to abstain from the U.N. resolution condemning new settlement construction in the West Bank. Many are describing this speech as an eloquent eulogy for the two-state solution and an airing of the grievances between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government. Critics of the speech say it only emboldens Israel’s enemies to increase international ostracism of the Jewish state. Almost all agree that with less than a month away from a new administration, the speech is likely to have little long term impact. But Kerry said something that I think highlights the peril of Israel maintaining the current status quo:


“Today, there are a similar number of Jews and Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. They have a choice. They can choose to live together in one state or they can separate into two states. But here is a fundamental reality, if the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or Democratic, it cannot be both. And it won’t ever really be at peace.”


Democracy and Judaism  were both foundational principles for the state of Israel. If Israel continues to pursue its current path it could be condemning itself to destruction – either the destruction of its core principles or perhaps, God forbid, the destruction of the state itself. We must learn from the mistakes of the Maccabees to never lose sight of the reason we fought in the first place, and to hold our leaders accountable to fight for the long term future of the dream we have  had for so long. Mere sovereignty is not enough – God demands more, and we as the Jewish people should demand more. May the land of Israel continue to build on its many strengths and remain committed to the principles and actions that make it one of the most remarkable countries in the world, and may we see an enduring and just peace in our time. Amen.

Date Posted Title Author
Dec 31, 2016 The Mistakes of the Maccabees Rabbi Michael Cohen