Hanukka: How It Happened

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

I. The Jews and The Greeks

When the Hebrew tribes invaded Phoenician Canaan some thirty-five hundred years ago, another invasion took place across the sea. A barbaric people who had called themselves the Hellenes (and whom their Roman enemies and admirers would call the Greeks) poured out of central Europe onto the rocky Aegean lands, establishing numberless city-states. These principalities evolved into urban centers of grace and sophistication.

Condemned to a rocky soil unsuited to farming, and urbanized by necessity, the Hellenes became international traders and adventurers. Long before the armies of Alexander crossed the Hellespont to conquer Asia, Hellenic merchants, sailors, and soldiers were scattered over the middle East, in Egypt, Persia, Sicily, Scythia and Judea.

Of all the peoples the Jews came into contact with, the Greeks were the most formidable. The power of the Hellenes did not lie in their armies, it lay in their culture. The freedom, wealth, and beauty of the Greek urban style were compelling alternatives to the dull, repetitive routines of a Semitic theocracy.

However, the Greek “danger” lay in more than attractive novelty. The urban Hellenes regarded their culture as superior to all other national lifestyles. The English word barbarian, derived from the Greek word foreigner, still carries all the contempt they bore for outsiders. Against such ego strength, the Jewish ego was less effective than against the more modest self-esteem of their Semitic and Aryan neighbors.

The Greek conquest of Judea was part of the general collapse of the Persian Empire. For two hundred years the Jews had accepted the domination of Persian kings and governors — and the control of their Jewish Zadokite collaborators. As a

minor province of the Empire, Judea had endured the predictable and picayune government of a pretentious priestly aristocracy, which earned its right to power by discouraging rebellion. When the Macedonian Alexander united the Greek cities by military force and led the Hellenic armies into Asia, the Jews did not expect his arrival. The fall of mighty Persia was inconceivable to the popular mind. The ignominious flight of the Persian king from the field of Issus was greeted by public disbelief.

By 325 B.C.E., the Persian Empire had become the Greek Empire. Alexander reigned in triumph over all the great nations of the Western world.

Jerusalem and the Jews woke up one morning to discover that their king now spoke Greek instead of Persian. Such a minor change would have meant nothing to the tranquility of their political existence if Alexander had lived. However, he inconsiderately died young and left the spoils of his conquest to no established heir. Three of his generals vied for his power and his property.

Trained to passive dependence by their priestly guides, the Jews watched the struggle of General Ptolemy and General Seleucus for Judea with the involvement of spectators at a football game.

In the end they found themselves the personal possession of General Ptolemy. This enterprising general had seized Egypt and had made new Alexandria the capital of his kingdom. Needing Judea to protect his Asiatic flank he persisted in holding her against the military power of his rival Seleucus.

For the first time in their history, the Jews were attached to Egypt. Of course, the Egypt of the Ptolemies was no Egyptian Egypt. It was a Greek Egypt. Alexandria was a sophisticated island of the Greek lifestyle in a sea of Egyptian peasants.

In this situation the incorporation of Judea into Egypt did not make the Jews more Egyptian. It simply made them more Greek, more occidental.

Greek Judea underwent the trauma of urbanization. Jerusalem was transformed from a palace storehouse for priestly treasures (as well as a walled Temple shrine) into an emporium for the goods of many nations. Stimulated by the government initiative, many Jews invested the meager surplus of their near marginal farming in trade speculation. Although the priestly authors of the

Torah had viewed the merchant profession with disdain and had condemned moneylending, the lure of profit outweighed religious considerations. Even the cautious Zadokites were too greedy to avoid dabbling.

Greek Judea promoted the rise of a new social class and a new political power. A Jewish bourgeoisie emerged in Jerusalem. The nouveaux riches Jewish merchants of this ancient city resented the snobbish standoffishness of the old priestly and landowning aristocracy. They demanded social recognition and access to positions of prestige.

Judea of the Ptolemies underwent, as a result of this new social development, what can best be described as partial secularization. Since the Zadokite priests and rulers had found their strength in a stable agricultural society, they viewed

with dismay the face of the new Jerusalem. Their Torah was ill-suited to the needs of a merchant city, and their vested interest made them fear the competition of the ambitious bourgeoisie. Although they enjoyed the monetary results of trade speculation, they feared the political and social implications. Ultimately, the Greek governor forced them to yield some of their control. Theocracy yielded to plutocracy (the rule of the rich). A boule or council, with the high priest as its president, was established to govern Jerusalem and Judea. The council featured not only Zadokites and landowners, but the leaders of the new merchant

aristocracy. The priest-dominated Judea of the Persian period was now finding room for secular machers.

Ptolemaic Judea, in particular Jerusalem, experienced a massive cultural change. Neither Zadokite nor Persian lifestyles seemed appropriate to the new urban setting of a trade emporium. The desire to become as Greek as possible pervaded the middle and upper classes. Hellenization was the inevitable result of economic change.

Secular schools were opened where the children of the bourgeoisie could study the skills they would require for both business and leisure. These schools provided a secular alternative to the Zadokite school in the Temple. The Greek admiration for the human body inspired more public exposure. Athletic games became a frequent spectacle and shocked the country peasants who

found public nudity blasphemous.

The consequence of urbanization was the emergence of Jewish intellectuals who sought to deal with their tradition and their religion in a rational way. Their overwhelming desire was to find respectable reasons for the performance of old rituals and scientific justification for the telling of old myths. In their eyes the Zadokite priests were boorish and illiterate clergymen incapable of rescuing the Torah for “modern” times.

The ambivalence of the Zadokites was the main source of their weakness. After two hundred years of strong and effective rule, they collapsed under the strains of Hellenization. Too snobbish to unite with the believing masses against the skeptical bourgeoisie, and too attracted to the material benefits of urbanization to strongly resist the encroachment of the merchants, they surrendered their power in the most humiliating fashion — with no resistance.

II. The Maccabees

Every society is dominated by those who succeed in achieving power. They are the ruling elite.

Jewish history, like the history of all nations, is the story of one power elite replacing another. Each ruling group creates laws and institutions to maintain its control. It also invents stories and ideologies to justify its domination. The royal house of David commissioned the Book of Kings and proclaimed the divine right of its family monarchy. The Zadokite priests authored the Torah and announced the divine right of their priestly dictatorship.

In the Greek period, there emerged a new competitor for power in the Jewish state. It was a family of destitute Levites from a backwater village called Modeen. Like most non-Zadokite Levites they were unemployed as priests. For generations, they had been reconciled to powerlessness and insignificance. In the year 180 B.C. they were nonentities. In the year 140 B.C. they were the masters of Judea.

The name of this family varies. They were officially called the Hasmoneans because they were descended from an obscure ancestor Hasmonai. They were popularly called the Maccabees because their most famous leader bore this surname. Consumed by ambition, they destroyed Zadokite power, drove the Greeks from Judea, established an independent Jewish state, conquered neighboring lands, and became absolute masters. of all they surveyed. In the process of achieving the ultimate power, they made many enemies. These enemies hated the Maccabees with such intensity that their anger still burned two centuries after the Hasmoneans disappeared.

What was the secret of their success? How was it possible for an obscure peasant family to reach the heights of political power within forty years?

The Maccabees succeeded because of their personal charisma. There were five Hasmonean brothers, the sons of a man called Mattathias. Three of them were men of strong ambition, courage and charm. Judah shone as a military leader, Jonathan as a political manipulator and Simon as a ruthless administrator. Without the chemistry of their personalities, power would have eluded them.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Zadokites ‘committed suicide’. Torn between their upper-class desire to be chic and Greek and their vested interest in being pious and traditional, these Jerusalem priests opted for the first alternative. Their decision was fatal. Becoming Hellenized made them more fashionable. It also made them less convincing as promoters of the Torah. Since it was the Torah that justified their power, to undermine the authority of the Torah by repudiating its lifestyle was to undermine their own authority.

The Maccabees succeeded because a new class of ‘successful people’ had emerged who found priestly rule insufferable. The wealthy merchants who made their fortunes during the budding affluence of the Greek period found the concentration of political power in priestly hands humiliating. The Zadokites were landholders and were unsympathetic to the needs of the merchant class. They resisted organizing Jerusalem as a Greek city with a municipal council of its own. They wanted to keep the upstart merchants in their own place and to prevent them from securing any position of authority. Like most feudal aristocracies, the Zadokites believed that pedigree was more important than money. The merchants disagreed with them and sought to replace them with more pliable rulers.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Zadokite rulers had alienated the peasants. The Greek habits of the upper classes made them appear as foreigners unworthy of respect and obedience. In response to this change, a lower-class rebellion emerged. The nature of this rebellion was pietistic. It was reflected in a fanatic attachment to the lifestyle of the Torah. This attachment was ironic. The Torah was originally a document of the Zadokites, by the Zadokites and for the Zadokites which they had created to impose their control upon the Jewish masses. Now the very masses who had initially resisted the demands of the Torah became its most ardent defenders, while the authors of the book betrayed their own self-interest.

The Maccabees succeeded because one set of Greek rulers were replaced by another set of Greek rulers. Judea belonged for 125 years to the Greek king of Egypt who lived in Alexandria. When his rival, the Greek king of Syria, invaded his territory and defeated him in battle, Judea passed from Egyptian control to Syrian control. The change of government was profoundly disturbing to many Jews. They had strong connections with Alexandria, to which thousands of Jews had emigrated because of overpopulation in Judea. The Syrian Greeks had severed a natural bond.

The Maccabees succeeded because of the poverty of the Greek king of Syria. Anxious to prosecute his war against Egypt, Antiochus required immense sums of money. Informed by Jews eager to curry his favor that the Jerusalem temple was very rich and that the religious tribute of several centuries lay stored up in its treasury, Antiochus decided to plunder it. This act of sacrilege enhanced his war budget but alienated him from the Jewish people. It was a shortsighted action which, in the long run, cost him more than he received. Even the Greek sympathizers among the Jews found his behavior offensive and became either apathetic or hostile.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Syrian Greeks were aggressive Hellenizers. The Egyptian Greeks were the masters of a compact territory which was easily controlled. Antiochus, on the other hand, was the ruler of a vast kingdom, most of whose people were not Greek. The Syrian empire was a conglomeration of Syrians, Chaldeans, Armenians, Persians, Arabs and Jews. Hellenic rule could only be maintained if Greek urban colonies could be established in every province as islands of safety, surveillance and loyalty. Antiochus chose the Jewish city of Jerusalem, among many other imperial urban centers, to be a Greek base of operation. The routine sign of the Hellenization of a city was the identification of the traditional city god with a Greek god. Assisted by a garrison of Greek mercenaries and a small band of Jewish sympathizers, the king declared Jerusalem to be fully Greek and Yahveh to be none other than Zeus Olympius. For fanatic pietists and religious patriots, Yahveh was a Jewish name and Zeus was a Greek name. Moreover, even if Zeus were the most exalted, noble and ethereal of all gods, a god who liked pork and uncircumcised males could not be a Jewish god. The argument was not theological; it was ethnic. For Jews who had been reared on large doses of Zadokite paranoia, the loss of Jerusalem was a national humiliation. The Jews were no more universal than the Greeks.

The Maccabees succeeded because Antiochus was diverted. When a small group of peasant fanatics, under Hasmonean leadership, rose up in rebellion against the Syrian Greeks and sought to seize Jerusalem, the king was unable to suppress them. Under normal circumstances, the overwhelming might of the royal armies would have successfully crushed the Jewish guerrillas. But Antiochus had no time for the Jews. A powerful enemy, the Parthians, emerged on his vulnerable eastern frontier. All the resources of the royal government had to be directed to the battle against the Parthians. The Jewish guerrillas were spared destruction. They had only a few military leftovers to contend with. Since the Parthian invasion persisted until half the empire was lost, the Jewish rebels benefited from allies they had never met.

The Maccabees succeeded because they found a strong ‘friend.’ At the time of the Hasmonean rebellion, a new power was arising in the West. The Romans swept eastward, conquering the Balkans and dominating Greece. In the East, they confronted two rivals — the Greeks of Egypt and the Greeks of Syria. The Romans cleverly decided to play one against the other. They offered themselves as the Protectors of Egypt against Syria. When the Maccabees began their rebellion, they turned to Rome for help. The threat of Roman retaliation was an effective deterrent to Syrian action.

The Maccabees succeeded because the Syrian throne itself was in perpetual turmoil. While the Syrian kingdom was threatened by Parthian invaders in the east, Jewish guerrillas in the south and Roman hostility in the west, every Syrian king had to defend himself against armed rivals. Antiochus Epiphanes, the man who had plundered the Jerusalem Temple, had himself seized the kingdom from his younger nephew. His children, in turn, were challenged by their cousins. The Jews benefited from this dynastic infighting. The Maccabees offered their assistance and support — now to one side, then to another. Skillful Jonathan Maccabee changed sides several times, taking full advantage of Syrian disunity.

The Maccabean success was no miracle. It was the result of Jewish talent and Syrian bad luck.