Can we apply the lessons learned from the Maccabees in the story of Chanukah (to have courage, to stand up and fight, not to bow to outside pressures) to Israel's current struggle for its rights and independence?
The simple answer to this question would seem to be an obvious yes; of course we should learn from the heroes of our past. Upon further consideration, though, the answer may be more complicated that you might first expect. You outline the lessons that we might learn but are these really the lessons – or primary lessons – of the story? The fact is that the lessons that are actually to be learned may really be quite different. The current struggle in Israel is, of course, comparable to any battle in which those who fought demonstrated courage and stood up to fight for what they believed in and in that way we can clearly, of course, also learn from the Maccabees as you properly identify. Yet, in a more specific sense, the story of Chanukah actually reflected, in many ways, a different type of conflict than the one we are presently experiencing in Israel. In that regard, the lessons may be different than you might think.
First of all, in essence the battle of Chanukah actually began as a civil war; the Syrian Greeks only became involved at the request of Hellenists Jews who wished to introduce more Hellenist ideas into Jewish culture. This leads to the second major distinction between the present situation in Israel and the battle of Chanukah. This latter battle was an idealistic one, not nationalistic. While the present conflict in Israel does include some religious overtones, the essence of the battle is one between nations or ethnic groupings. In the case of Chanukah, the essential battle was really within one national identity, the Jews; the conflict was over which ideology should be dominant within the Jewish society. As such, when you present one lesson of Chanukah to be that we should not bow to outside pressure, while this is true, it was a different type of outside pressure to which the Maccabees stood up. The challenge for Israel today may, in part, revolve around the question of how to stand up to outside political and national pressure. The fight of the Maccabees was against a pressure of an outside value system that was influencing Jewish society and while it became a physical war, its essence was in the mind.
There is indeed a further lesson, that we can learn from the Maccabees, that is applicable to modern day Israel but it is not one that directly connects with the present nationalistic struggle tied to conflict with the Arab world. What the Maccabees also stand for is the need to maintain the uniqueness of our Jewish identity, being and meaning. This is not necessarily to say that there is nothing within the outside world from which we can benefit but the need is to declare what is primary. The battle of Chanukah was in regard to what would be primary – Torah or Hellenism? The Hellenists still wanted some traditional Jewish practices but only when they could also pass the sanction of Hellenism. For the Maccabees, Torah was primary and it was any Hellenist ideas that had to pass the test of Torah. This is still an important lesson for Israel today in its greater struggle in its broadest sense of finding its national identity – but it may not be a lesson of which you were thinking.
Question: Can we apply the lessons learned from the Maccabees in the story of Chanukah (to have courage, to stand up and fight, not to bow to outside pressures) to Israel's current struggle for its rights and independence?
Answer: History is filled with object lessons, both positive and negative, and the story of Chanukah certainly contains its share of inspirational examples, both those mentioned in the question and others:
The questioner is correct in citing Chanukah as an example from history of the need for the Jewish people to resist oppression. In fact, Chanukah represents the first successful revolt on behalf of religious freedom in world history! And so, in addition to the lesson of self-reliance, we can add the lesson of the importance of the free exercise of religion, one of the famous “four freedoms” that President Franklin D. Roosevelt identified as characteristically American concerns. The free exercise of religion means that a society will celebrate—or at least tolerate—religious diversity, internally, and will avoid looking at the international scene through lenses distorted by jihad or crusade mentality.
The history of the Hasmonean leaders of the Jewish people, before and after the Chanukah holiday, contains other lessons, as well. The Jewish people were bitterly divided in the decade prior to the Hasmonean revolt. Some Jews advocated total assimilation into the Greek cultural sphere. Others were totally opposed to change. The Hasmoneans themselves pursued a middle course, opting to acculturate in certain matters, but resisting any encroachment on fundamental Jewish perspectives and practices. Notice that the birth of the holiday was itself a religious innovation! The Five Books of Moses do not contain any holidays, initiated by Moses and Joshua, the successful generals, to commemorate a military victory. That action was more in line with what Hellenistic generals were accustomed to doing. Similarly, we find that the later kings of the Hasmonean dynasty, such as John Hycanus (reigned 134- 104 BCE) and Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE), styled themselves by Greek as well as Hebrew names. As in so many other examples from Jewish history, knowing how to balance tradition and change is an important lesson from Chanukah.
There may be a nuance in the questioner’s formulation of encouraging Israel to disregard the positions of outsiders, including allies, if there are differences of opinion. I would uphold the religious and ethical mandate of Israel, as a state created with the responsibility of protecting Jewish life in a hostile world, to take lonely stands, when it is in the right. But splendid isolation is not a good in and of itself. One of the lessons of Chanukah is that the Jewish state needs to court strategic allies, when possible. In his struggle against the Seleucid overlord, Judah Maccabee sent a diplomatic mission to Rome, where it was well received, with the result that, “for the first time since the Exile, the Jews were recognized as an independent power, and by the very people that ruled the world.” (Elias Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, p. 133.) By extension, Israel should have a regard for the maintenance of its alliance with the United States, the foremost among its allies.
I begin with an assumption – always a risky matter – that the reference in the query to the Maccabees intends to suggest a courageous stand by the few against the many. And while that may be a lesson of the Chanukah story, the historical record includes sufficient nuance and ambiguity to reach a variety of alternative suggestions, parallels, and lessons. I would encourage any respondent to do some of that investigation, for the Maccabees/Hasmoneans are not without their critics and deservedly so.
That matter aside the lessons of history are always complex, often confusing and never simply applied as no two situations ever precisely align. For instance, the Maccabees were dealing from what would universally be considered a position of military weakness whereas, thankfully, Israel is strong, and most observers would conclude, even with the pain that comes with every casualty, she is unlikely to lose any immediate encounter with enemies. Nonetheless, without a substantive change, it may be that time is not on Israel's side. After all, her adversaries need to get only almost as good as she to inflict horrific losses on her citizens. That logic might well indicate that Israel must be strong and bold in taking greater risks for peace as assuredly she has had to take great risks by force of arms to ensure her safety.
As to the matter of outside pressure, one person’s pressure – no matter the particulars – may be another person’s wisdom. The one thing I suspect all may agree on is that the decisions Israel faces are hers to make, and we are blessed to live at a time when a strong, independent and Jewish state has the capacity to do so. May that always and only continue.
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