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Were the Maccabees Religious Extremists?

In The Jerusalem Report (December 20, 2001), Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Conservative Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, debates Reconstructionist Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz, of Temple Bnai Israel in Willimantic, Connecticut. The rabbis debate whether or not the Maccabees were religious extremists.

Were the Maccabees Religious Extremists?
Throughout the generations, Jews have taken inspiration from the rebellion led by the priestly Hasmonean family against the Selucid Empire in the second century BCE. Traditionally, the revolt has been seen as a war to defend Jewish culture from forced assimilation. But an alternative view notes that, in Taliban fashion, the Maccabees also slaughtered Jewish Hellenists; and following their victory, Judean King John Hyrcanus I forcibly converted the neighboring Idumean population to Judaism.

Dear Rabbi David Golinkin,

The Maccabees were not fighting for “religious freedom.” Their deeds, chronicled in I Maccabees, begin with Mattityahu’s killing a Jew for an improper sacrifice, and continue with forced circumcisions. They forced Jews to conform to their version of Judaism and expelled non-Jews from the land. Today, they would be called extremists. We should be explicit about this, lest we be led down their path of zealotry and fanaticism. Ancient rabbis already understood that path to be incompatible with a divinely inspired, law-based society.
I Maccabees 2:26 praises Mattityahu as a zealot like the Biblical Pinhas. In Numbers (25:1-15), Pinhas spears a couple in the act of sexual idolatry. The rabbis were very ambivalent about Pinhas’s zealotry. In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud, they forbade rabbinical courts to give permission to zealots to act or to teach zealotry. The Jerusalem Talmud states that Pinhas would have been excommunicated by the sages of his day had God not intervened. Even from the Biblical perspective, God rewarded Pinhas with a “covenant of peace.” That is, a true zealot does what he needs to do, but is not continually filled with hatred. In contrast, most self-proclaimed zealots — including the Maccabees — begin violently and become more violent as they practice their zealotry.

The history of the Hasmoneans shows the fruits of their zealotry. Within just a generation, they usurped the Davidic throne, took on Greek names and practices, and persecuted — even murdered — Torah scholars. To paraphrase Lord Acton, ‘Zealotry tends to corrupt and absolute zealotry corrupts absolutely.’

Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz

Dear Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz,

The Maccabees were most definitely fighting for religious freedom. To begin their story with Mattityahu’s killing the idol-worshipper is akin to starting the story of the Six-Day War with Israel’s attack in June 1967. Just as Israel reacted to Arab aggression, the Maccabees reacted to Antiochus’s religious oppression.

According to I Maccabees, Antiochus captured Jerusalem in 168 BCE through subterfuge, “despoiled the city and burnt it with fire.” He then outlawed the sacrificial system, the Sabbath and festivals, ordered the Jews to “sacrifice swine’s flesh and unclean cattle” and “to leave their sons uncircumcised … so that they might forget the Torah and change all ordinances” under penalty of death. His troops erected an idol upon the alter in the Temple, burned Torah scrolls and “put to death women who had circumcised their children, hanging newborn babies around their necks.”

The Maccabees were not fanatics; they were religious Jews defending their people from murder, pillage and oppression.
The reference to Pinhas must also be taken in context. when Mattityahu refused to worship idols in public and a Jew came forward to do so, Mattityahu slew him upon the alter. “Thus he showed his zeal for the Torah, as Pinhas had done toward Zimri ben Salu.” While some Sages criticized Pinhas, the Torah itself calls him a hero. (Numbers 25:13)

Rabbi David Golinkin

Dear Rabbi Golinkin, Of course the Maccabees fought against cruel and terrible religious persecution. Sadly, though, history has proven that those who fight oppressors are not necessarily freedom fighters. Were the Bolsheviks freedom fighters because they reacted to czarist oppression? Was Khomeini a freedom fighter because he opposed the dictatorship of the Shah?

It is morally disastrous to believe that just because we Jews have been oppressed, we are incapable of becoming oppressors. Our prophets tell us that when the descendants of the slaves who came out of Egypt gained power in their own land, they themselves oppressed the widow, the orphan, the hired worker and the stranger. The Maccabees provide another example. They didn’t want Antiochus to impose his system; they wanted to impose theirs. Their dynasty perpetuated blind zealotry, not the humble desire to do God’s will. You are also right that the rabbis laud Pinhas, the zealot who is presented as a model for the Maccabees. In several midrashim, they raise him to superhuman status. It is told, for example, that Pinhas became an angel and/or returned as Elijah, and will return again as the herald of the messiah. I think this only reinforces the halakhic teaching that normal people cannot and should not take the zealotry of Pinhas as our model. The history of the Maccabees teaches us that the certainty that “God is on our side” is dangerous.

Jeremy Schwartz

Dear Rabbi Schwartz, I agree that Jews are capable of becoming oppressors, but since you cite no sources, it’s hard to determine to what zealotry you refer. It is true that the descendants of the Maccabees did some unsavory things: John Hyrcanus (after 129 BCE) conquered Edom and forced its inhabitants to adopt Judaism, while Alexander Yannai (95-83 BCE) killed thousands of Jews in a civil war. But we should not hold the Maccabees accountable for the sins of their descendants. Hannukah is about the Maccabees, not their descendants. The Maccabees are worthy of emulation. They exemplify the willingness to die for kiddush hashem, for the santification of God’s name.

They also exemplify a flexible attitude to Jewish law: When they saw the Greeks purposely attacking them on Shabbat, “they made the following decision: If any man attack us in battle on the Sabbath day, let us oppose him, that we not all die as our brothers did in the hiding places.” And they exemplify bravery in battle. As Judah said before the battle of Beit Horon: “Victory in battle does not depend on the size of the army, but rather on strength that comes from Heaven.” He and a handful then defeated 800 enemy troops. These are the values which we celebrate and teach on Hannukah.

David Golinkin

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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