Hanukkah provides us with an important test case.
When learning about Judah Maccabee in Hebrew school, I was taught about a strong and brave leader who fought for the right to practice Judaism freely. However, I was not taught about the darker side of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty they established, which included extensive corruption.
The very story of the Maccabean revolt is complicated as it involved an internal dispute within the Jewish community about how to engage the ruling Syrian Greek Empire and the Hellenistic culture it introduced in the Land of Israel. The Maccabees were zealous in their opposition to these changes, choosing to fight against anyone who challenged them, including other Jews. Indeed, Mattathias’ first slaying, according to the Book of Maccabees, was of a fellow Jew who complied with Antiochus’ heretical ritual demands.
In reflecting on the story of Hanukkah, a much earlier tale from our tradition, the Tower of Babel, comes to mind. After reading about Noah and the great flood, we learn that the people of the earth banded together to undertake a grand project: to build a tower reaching the heavens. So committed were they to this shared endeavor, the people actually all spoke “one language” (Genesis 11:1). But why did they initiate this project? Perhaps because of the deep anxiety they felt about the possibility of being washed away by another catastrophe.
In reflecting on this biblical episode, many of our commentators express grave concerns about the uniformity that emerged among the builders of the Tower. For example, the great medieval French interpreter, Rashi, teaches us that the biblical expression d’varim ahadim (“one language”) meant that the people shared in one terribly misguided scheme: to wage war against G-d in heaven. Other commentators suggests there was a hive-mind at work, and everyone had to conform to the one “Truth” of the day. Filled with fear about the stability of life, the people of Babel sought to overcome it by introducing a totalitarian ethos. It is for this reason, our sages explain, that the Tower of Babel project failed; God left the people speaking many languages.
The story of Hanukkah is also set in the context of a situation of a people living in the midst of great change and anxiety, with different groups believing they knew what was absolutely right for themselves and for everyone else. The Maccabees saw a clear and present danger, and they believed that they were doing G-d’s work. I cannot say that they were entirely wrong in their fears about the Syrian Greeks and the response of their fellow Jews to Hellenistic culture. However, Judah and his compatriots took these fears to an extreme. Further, once they defeated their enemies, the Maccabees and their descendants fell prey to the seductions of power.
The stories of the Tower of Babel and of the Maccabees have much to teach us today. In times of change and fear, people often mistake conformity with solidarity. But as we learn from the Book of Genesis, G-d does not want us to be the same, to think in only one way, or speak a single language. G-d has created a diverse world and charged us with the complicated task of learning to live together peacefully.
It is no wonder that the rabbis of the Talmud, who introduce the concrete laws and customs of Hanukkah, do not hold up the Maccabees as heroes. The early rabbinic sages were not zealots; they did not fight the Romans to the death, but instead used a strategy of accommodation to rebuild Jewish life after the destruction of the Second Temple. I also want to add that a cornerstone of rabbinic Judaism is makhloket, the practice of discussion and debate, as a means for establishing communal norms. Our sages so valued this dialogical enterprise that every page of the Talmud includes a variety of opinions about any subject of significance.
As we celebrate Hanukkah this year, we need to think carefully about our history. What are the positive and negative lessons of the Maccabees? When must we fight for what we believe is right and when is it better to engage in dialogue with those people with whom we disagree?
Jessica Lowenthal is a second-year student at Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School.