Heroes or rabble-rousers? The real story of the MaccabeesIn general I would say that it is perilous to hold up any event, text, or narrative from antiquity as an unambiguous moral example for today. The ancients often took moral standards for granted which we find very troubling. But that should not stop us from learning from what they said and did, appreciating the courageous stands they often took under horrendous conditions it is hard for us even to imagine, and (one would hope) improving on their example.
By Gil Shefler · December 10, 2009
NEW YORK (JTA) -- In 165 BCE, a group of warriors led by Judah Maccabee and his band of brothers ushered in a new era in Jewish history when they routed the soldiers of the Greek-Syrian empire and rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
That victory, and the miracle of the menorah that followed, is celebrated every year by Jews around the world at Chanukah.
But if the same thing had happened today, would contemporary Jews hail the Maccabees as heroes?
The place in Jewish history of the Maccabees -- a nickname for the first members of the Hasmonean dynasty that ruled an autonomous Jewish kingdom -- is much more complex than their popular image might suggest.
"My guess is that most liberal Jews today wouldn't necessarily get along with the Maccabees if they showed up again," said Rabbi Jill Jacob, the rabbi in residence at Jewish Funds for Justice.
“Even those of us who are regularly active in Jewish life may find it hard to identify with Matityahu, the leader of the Jewish revolt, whom the first Book of Maccabees depicts as killing a Jew who sacrifices to a pagan god," she wrote in an essay about the meaning of Chanukah.
Jacobs argues that Jews should be aware of the complicated history, though they do not have to be bound by it.
"In redefining Chanukah, each generation considers anew the questions of assimilation and ethnic identity, the tension between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people as a nation," she wrote.
Many Jews in ancient times also had their reservations regarding the exploits of Judah Maccabee and his brothers.
Monday, December 14, 2009
THE HANUKKAH NARRATIVE, and its use in various subsequent historical contexts, comes under further scrutiny: