Hasmoneans, Hellenism and Us

Opinion

By Shaye J.D. Cohen

Published December 11, 2008, issue of December 19, 2008.
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This is Hanukkah season. In Hebrew schools across the country the Hanukkah story will be told, and the story usually goes like this: The wicked king Antiochus IV Epiphanes attacked the innocent and pious Jews of Judaea, imposing Greek ways, proscribing the observance of Jewish practices and profaning the Temple of Jerusalem. Judah the Maccabee and his sturdy brothers (known collectively as the Hasmoneans) went to war against Hellenism, against the king and against those Jews who supported the king and his policies. They triumphed. In 164 B.C.E. they reconquered Jerusalem, put an end to the religious persecution, purified the Temple and instituted the festival of Hanukkah to commemorate their victory. In this existential struggle between Jews and Greeks, between Judaism and Hellenism, the Jews triumphed. According to this Hebrew school version of the events, which mirrors the popular Jewish understanding, the Hasmoneans saved Judaism from Hellenism.

Recently some critics have accepted this version of the events but have turned the story on its head. Whereas every Hebrew school student knows that King Antiochus was the bad guy, and that the Hasmoneans were the good guys, according to these critics the opposite was the case. Antiochus represents Greek enlightenment, the Hasmoneans Jewish particularism and ritualism. According to Christopher Hitchens, in a much-discussed essay he wrote last year for the online magazine Slate, the Hasmoneans were simply anti-Hellenist religious fanatics. For Hitchens, Hanukkah represents the “victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason.” The Hasmoneans waged a “successful… revolt against Hellenism”; Hitchens wishes that they had lost.

Now, let us freely admit that some of what the Hasmoneans did was not pretty; wars and revolutions are usually not pretty. But let us at least get our facts straight. No matter whether we think that the Hasmoneans were the good guys or the bad guys, the fact is that the Hasmoneans were not opponents of Hellenism. The Hasmoneans did not save Judaism from Hellenism so much as they showed the Jews how to live with it.

The Hasmoneans faced two kinds of opponents within Jewish society. First were those who completely supported the Greeks, perhaps even to the extent of not objecting when the Greeks introduced a pagan cult object into the Temple and prohibited the observance of Jewish laws and customs outside the Temple. These Jews, who were in bed with the Greeks both politically and morally, are usually called “Hellenizers” in modern scholarship. At the other end of the spectrum were those Jews who wanted to have nothing to do with either the Hasmoneans or the Greeks, and who ran off into the desert in order to escape the capital city and its sinful ways. These Jews, who were anti-Hasmonean and anti-Greek in equal measure, founded the settlement at Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea, ultimately giving us the Qumran scrolls. (I am telescoping events slightly, since the Qumran settlement was probably not founded until the 140s B.C.E. or so.)

The Hasmoneans steered a middle course, abjuring the Hellenism of the Hellenizers and the anti-Hellenism of the Qumranites. Their goal was to find a way to live with Hellenism, to combine a secure Jewish identity with Hellenistic culture.

The Hanukkah narrative in the first book of Maccabees, written by a Jewish supporter of the Hasmonean dynasty at the end of the second century B.C.E., illustrates this point well. Perhaps most striking is the institution of the Hanukkah festival itself: “Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev.”

Whence did the Hasmoneans get the idea to institute by popular acclaim a yearly festival celebrating their great victory? Not from the Torah; in the Torah God gives festivals to the people of Israel. The Israelites do not choose festivals for themselves. Nor from the biblical histories (Joshua through Kings), which are full of stories of conquest and victory but which never describe a biblical hero as instituting a festival.

No, the twin ideas that an assembly of the people has the power to institute an annual festival, and the idea that an annual festival is an appropriate way to mark a great victory, are ideas that came to the Hasmoneans from Greek culture. This is how the Greeks celebrated their great victory over the Persians in 479 B.C.E.; they instituted an annual festival at Delphi.

The narrative of First Maccabees has other examples of Hasmonean Hellenism. In 140 B.C.E. the Hasmonean party elected Simon, brother of Judah, as high priest. This, of course, is an un-Jewish idea; the popular election of a high priest is rooted in Hellenism, as is the inscribing of decrees of the people’s assembly on bronze tablets and affixing them to pillars for all to see. The book also contains a dossier of documents in which the Hasmoneans try to establish kinship between the Judaeans and the Spartans. As long as the Temple and its rituals, the Law and its requirements, were not touched, the Hasmoneans were not afraid to enrich Judaism by incorporating Hellenistic ideas and practices.

American Jewish society today has both Hellenizers and anti-Hellenizers. Our Hellenizers are the large numbers of Jews who are not interested in Jewish observances; they have assimilated into the American mainstream, abandoning the hallmarks of Jewish distinctiveness, becoming simply Americans of Jewish background. Our anti-Hellenizers have fled not to the desert but to increasingly insular religious enclaves. They attempt to keep American culture and American mores at bay, contending that the Torah has a monopoly on truth and that Jews have nothing to learn from Western culture.

The Hasmoneans, however, show us a third way: observance of traditional rituals, loyalty to the Torah and Jewish distinctiveness, enriched by the ways of the Greeks, a Judaism made beautiful by the beauty of Hellenism. This is the lesson of Hanukkah.

Shaye J.D. Cohen is the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University. He is the author, most recently, of “Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised?: Gender and Covenant in Judaism” (University of California Press, 2005).


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