Hanukkah as Jewish civil war

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 22 2005 3:29 PM

The Maccabees and the Hellenists

Hanukkah as Jewish civil war.

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But the question remains. Was the bloody Maccabean civil war and revolt necessary to the survival of Jewish identity? The Hasmonean state, originally a bulwark against Greek dominance, eventually declined into a petty Hellenist tyranny barely distinguishable from other military-political entities in the Middle East at the time. Memory of the Maccabean era of war and autonomy inspired the Jewish zealots of 67 to 73 C.E. who led the costly losing struggle against Rome that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Maccabean memory also fueled the messianic hopes of Rabbi Akiva and his followers, who backed the quixotic revolt of the warrior Shimon Bar Kochba, which Rome bloodily smashed in 135.

Today, the Maccabean memory has been resurrected in the modern state of Israel in the image of Jew as warrior, and Hanukkah is celebrated by many as a military holiday, the vestige of an ancient Independence Day. But I propose that on Hanukkah, we ought to consider whether an ethnic group that wishes to survive must turn itself into a nation-state. In the aftermath of the Bar Kochba debacle, at Hanukkah the words of the prophet Zachariah were read in the synagogue: "Not by power nor by might but through My spirit, says the Lord." In the glow of the candles this year we should wonder aloud whether the prophet's vision is but balm for losers or whether the international system may yet generate a new way for groups to be both part of the world and apart from it. Here is the hard question that an adult celebration of Hanukkah can bring into deliberate focus.

Rabbi James Ponet is Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale.

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