Open Zion

12.04.13

Don't Let the Maccabees Win

My given name is Mattathias. This, as you may know, is a sort of shibboleth for the most acutely Semitic among us, one of the very most Jewiest names that there are to be found. I am quite happy with this name. The Mattathias for whom I'm named happens to be the hero of the story of Hannukah, which happens to be my favorite holiday, if only for culinary reasons.

My historical namesake, Mattathias ben Yochanan, was a backwoods priest from Judea who is widely revered for having ignited, in 167 BCE, the war that became known as the Maccabean Revolt. Commanded by a Seleucid officer to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods of the Seleucid Greeks who were then occupying Judea, Mattathias refused. When another Jew stepped forward to do so, Mattathias killed both the Jew and the Seleucid officer in anger, then fled into the wilderness with his five sons and the immortal line “Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me.”

This is the beginning of the story that is celebrated on Hannukah. You may know the rest of the story: Mattathias dies, and his son Judah Maccabee (“Judah the Hammer.” Really.) leads his followers to victory over the Greeks. There's also something in there about oil miraculously lasting for eight nights.

What is typically omitted from this story for the sake of a tolerable holiday celebration is a little historical context. For starters, Mattathias and his family were not simply the bravest Jews in town, the only ones with the chutzpah to stand up to their occupiers. There was, in fact, a sizable contingent of Jews who were more than happy with their Hellenistic overlords, and eager to incorporate Greek influence into their religious practice.

These Hellenized Jews, who frequently had their origins in the upper reaches of Judean society, came to be known as the Sadducees. They frequently took Greek names, adopted Greek beliefs, and accepted Greek culture. At the time of the Maccabean revolt, there was underway a profound cultural, political and theological conflict between this faction and the traditionalist Jews, of whom Mattathias and his sons were some. This latter group shortly came to be known as the Pharisees. What had started as a theological argument had, by the time of the revolt, become a deep cultural and social divide, as well as an early example of violent class conflict.

It's also true that, when the Maccabees began to wage war, they did so not only against the Seleucid occupiers but against Hellenized Jews. A number of modern scholars have proposed that the conflict that followed was not so much a war of liberation as it was a genuine civil war; the rift between orthodox and reformist Jews, these scholars propose, had grown so wide that violence became inevitable.

History records internal Jewish strife to match and challenge the violence of the Judean war against the Seleucids. In fact, while the First Book of Maccabees portrays the Revolt as a righteous uprising against an oppressive foreign power, the Second Book of Maccabees (by another author) presents it as a battle of “Judaism” against “Hellenism.”

So which is it? Did a group of righteous warriors throw off the yoke of imperial oppression? Or did a band of reactionary theocrats put their progressive brethren to the indiscriminate sword?

Obviously, it's a little of both. I find it only a little strange that the historical figure for whom I'm named has long been lionized for an act that strikes me as plainly monstrous: the murder of an apostate. This, lest we forget, remains the modern prototype for a quintessentially retrograde act. It's for the crime of apostasy (in this case, writing a novel) that Ayatollah Khomenei sent death squads for Salman Rushdie. When Yigal Amir shot and killed Yitzhak Rabin, he did so in the insane belief that Rabin had betrayed a Jewish birthright.

Make no mistake: the Maccabees and their leader, my historical namesake, were anti-imperialists of a very noble sort—at least until they took power and began a very brief and very ruthless process of territorial expansion. But they were also religious fanatics of the same pernicious strain that threatens peace and freedom today.

Of course, the Seleucids weren't exactly secular liberals themselves, much as we may rightly extol the many brilliant and significant works that Greek culture produced. Antiochus IV had about as much in common with Aristotle as Rick Santorum has with Thomas Paine.

We are lucky, though, to live in an age in which we're not asked to choose between two fanaticisms. The revolutionaries of ancient Judea have multiple heirs in anti-imperialists and freedom fighters the world over. To venerate the Maccabees for their courage and steadfastness in the face of imperial might is an understandable practice, and a noble one.

But we might also do well to hear the words of my ardent namesake as if from the mouth of some modern extremist: as he flees into the hills to wage guerilla war, he invokes not democracy, but dogma; not freedom, but fanaticism. Seen in this light, Mattathias ben Yochanan's extremist heirs are everywhere from the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush, from the Appalachians to, indeed, the hills of modern Judea.

They are everywhere a danger to peace, justice, and freedom; they are a danger, as they were two millennia ago, to everyone who fails to share their zeal. Have a happy Hannukah, but please remember: don't let the Maccabees win.