Posts

National Liberation — The Hanukka Question

A Hanukkah Manual, Autumn 1983

What is the ethical dimension of Hanukka?

For Humanistic Jews the question is not trivial. Touting the supernatural intervention of Yahveh to make holy oil last longer hardly seems a reason for a celebration. And dramatizing the darkness of winter and the rebirth of sunlight is less compelling than it used to be, now that we live in a world of artificial lighting.

In a secular age more and more Jews want to find a moral message —with a contemporary flavor — in the saga of the Maccabees. The old rabbinic evaluation which saw in Hanukka the rightful destruction of the enemies of Yahveh is a bit embarrassing in an age of religious toleration.

Most Jewish leaders in North America now present the Hanukka story as a struggle for religious freedom — a perfectly respectable enterprise in the contemporary world.

The Greeks sought to deprive the Jews of their religious liberty. The Jews fought back and regained their freedom. The events fit into a tale which would warm the heart of any American civil libertarian. But, of course, reality intrudes. Once you move from propaganda to history the claim for religious freedom is hard to maintain.

The Maccabees were devout authoritarians and theocrats. They had no conception of a Jewish state in which a wide variety of Jewish religious opinions would thrive and flourish side by side. They had no vision of the pluralistic state in which the individual conscience would reign supreme.

The Maccabees were the children of the priests and the prophets. They believed with absolute sincerity that they were the agents of the one true God, the defenders of truth against falsehood and the enforcers of the divinely ordained way of life for all Jews. While they might be willing to tolerate the arguments between Pharisees and Sadducees, they were certainly not willing to extend any living space to Jewish pagans, skeptics or Hellenists. As devotees of the Torah, they were committed to a theocratic state run by Yahveh and his designated deputies.

In many respects the Maccabees were no different from Antiochus. Each adversary was committed to the absolute validity of his position and to the necessity of destroying all opposition. The Hellenists fared no better under the Maccabees than the pious did under Antiochus. ‘Toleration’ was not one of the bywords of that struggle. Ultimately, John Maccabee, through his conquest of Samaria and Galilee, sought to impose Jewish identity on the newly conquered. As a Jewish Antiochus he combined imperialism with religious conformity.

Interestingly, the Greek period before Antiochus was a far more liberal time than the era of Maccabean rule. Sadducees, Pharisees and Hellenists lived together in mutual hostility, but without the means to destroy each other. The government of the Greek Ptolemies was certainly committed to the spread of Greek culture. But it was less ambitious and more pragmatic than that of Antiochus.

The Hanukka story, quite obviously, does not realistically yield the ethical message of religious freedom and mutual toleration. At best it yields the moral value of national liberation.

National liberation is distinct from personal liberation and personal freedom. It is a struggle for what many perceive to be dignity — the right of ethnic groups to be governed by members of their own race. What the Maccabees achieved for the Jews was not religious freedom or personal independence. What they conferred upon the Jews was a government of Jews who were not the puppets of outside powers. The high priests in the Persian period were the agents of the Persians. But the Maccabees were their own agents. In so far as they were independent, the nation was independent.

Confusing national liberation and personal freedom is a modern problem. During the past forty years, many Third World nations have experienced the departure of their colonial masters and the establishment of native government. But national liberation has not been accompanied by civil liberties. Military dictatorships, one-party states, theocratic tyrants and self-righteous ideologues have replaced the foreign rulers. They are native born. But they are no kinder.

Gaddafi and Khomeini talk a lot about ‘liberation’. Yet they offer no personal freedom, although they may enjoy popular support. The liberty of minorities is denied, and the tyranny of public opinion and mob intimidation prevails. The people may feel that they have more dignity now that the Italians and the Americans are gone. But they are not free in any meaningful sense.

Jews generally have suffered from regimes of national liberation that deny individual liberties. Oppressed nations that win their independence usually are in no mood to tolerate differences. Poland, the Ukraine, Romania and the Arab countries did not deal kindly with non-conformist minorities. As historic aliens, Jews find it difficult to fit in when nationalism is new and aggressive.

Movements of national liberation are familiar events in human history. They are much older than liberal democracy and strike more powerful emotional chords. In modern times, they frequently use the propaganda of ‘freedom’ to camouflage despicable dictatorships.

It is, therefore, very important to point out what political freedom (which includes religious freedom) really is.

On the simplest level, freedom is the ability to do what you want to do. On a more profound political level, it is associated with certain key words and concepts.

Freedom refers to individuals. Groups cannot be free, since they do not have a single will or a single set of desires. Groups are collections of individuals. The opportunity to be governed by a member of your own group may enhance your dignity, but not necessarily your freedom.

Freedom means personal autonomy. The willingness to assume responsibility for your life and to resist the dictation of others is essential to liberty.

Freedom means diversity. In a social setting where everyone voluntarily thinks and does the same things, liberty is vacuous. Only an environment of diverse groups and diverse beliefs stimulates the individual to be free.

Freedom means creativity. A society where individuals choose only to imitate the past is no better than a mild tyranny. A significant liberty produces challenge to existing ideas and institutions. It thrives on new ideas.

Freedom means liberal democracy.

Perhaps the most insidious assault on freedom lies in the concept of democracy which many radical conservatives now use in their defense of censorship and moral conformity. If democracy means simply majority rule, then the will of the majority has the right to prevail whenever it is expressed. If a majority of the people want school prayer, book censorship and no abortion, their will should be respected. If they want to ban premarital sex, put Christian missionaries into the state schools and determine the style of local dress, their decision ought to be binding.

Majoritarian democracy gives freedom only to the majority. It claims the right to regulate all human behavior through the decision of the majority. If most of the citizens follow a single religion, then all citizens may be compelled to follow it.

The alternative democracy is called liberal democracy. The word liberal is used in the classic sense of commitment to freedom, not in the current sense of leftist views. Most moderate conservatives endorse liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy is the democracy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who feared the tyranny of public opinion and democratic majorities. If individual freedom is to prevail, the individual must be protected from intrusive majorities. Neither science nor lifestyle creativity are possible in a society where conformity intimidates.

In a liberal democracy, there is a constitution, written or unwritten, which restricts the power of ambitious majorities. They may govern the lives of others in order to provide for community survival and for public law and order. Unpopular ideas and unpopular behavior deserve the protection of the authorities if they do not harm society. Where there is widespread disagreement about the moral value of certain behavior, it is wise for majorities to abstain from imposing their views and to allow each individual to decide his or her own action in accordance with his or her own conscience. In a liberal democracy, majority rule is a procedural regulation, not a sacred law. It is far less important than individual freedom and dignity.

Now it would be naive to expect the Maccabees to have been precursors of Jefferson and Madison or devotees of liberal democracy. The social and cultural development of the Near East in the second century B.C. had hardly produced the conditions which enable people to even think about such political possibilities, A world in which people strongly believe that the goodwill of the gods is indispensable to the survival of society is not a place in which full religious freedom can prevail.

Nevertheless, there were contemporary political models that were “freer” than the Maccabean regime. In many of the imperial cities of the Greek world — especially Alexandria — populations of diverse ethnic groups made it pragmatically necessary to tolerate religious diversity. Even discreet philosophers of atheism, like the disciples of Epicurus, could preach their word in Athens.

Pious peasant cultures are not the stuff out of which toleration and variety are made. Conformity is appropriate to the world of villages. It is a hindrance to urban development. Openness to different people from different places is essential to urban growth.

Religious freedom, as an expression of individual freedom, did not emerge in any meaningful way until the Enlightenment brought a new secular perspective. God had to become less terrifying before government would relegate religion to the marketplace of private choice.

As a vulnerable minority, the Jews of the Enlightenment embraced the concept of religious toleration, even though their traditional wing never took it very seriously. For the orthodox, religious liberty was a pragmatic strategy for Jews living in a

Gentile country. It had no relevance to a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. The modern state of Israel suffers from this old fanaticism.

National liberation is important. But, without personal freedom, it is not very significant for the contemporary Western Jew. A Jewish state governed by a fanatically religious Jewish majority would have very little real liberty, even though the government was Jewish and independent.

Strangely enough, in the modern world, many colonial people had more freedom when they had less dignity. The individual Pakistani spoke much more freely in British India than in Zia’s military dictatorship. And even French Vietnam spawned a wider diversity than what Ho Chi Minh allowed.

Hanukka is about the fight for ethnic dignity, not the fight for personal freedom. We should not confuse the issue. National liberation deserves a celebration. But freedom needs more.

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.