An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Charles Sheer
Hero Worship: The Maccabees zealotry gives us pause,
but their passion cannot be denied
When I was young, I loved hearing TV commentators inform America
that a small band of Jews, called the Maccabees, heroically staged the first
rebellion in history in defense of religious freedom. I saw Judah and his band
as a precursor to the American revolutionaries and so Hanukka connected my identity
as a Jew with my identity as an American.
Imagine my disappointment when I learned in college that this
was not the entire picture. The Maccabees did fight to continue to observe Jewish
traditions; they resisted valiantly not assimilating into the dominant Syrian-Greek
culture. According to the American biblical scholar Theodor Gaster, Hanukkah
commemorates and celebrates the first serious attempt in history to proclaim
and champion the principle of religio-cultural diversity in the nation.
So far, so good.
However, I also learned that the Maccabees used violence and
coercion against fellow Jews to implement their position. When a Jew offered
an idolatrous sacrifice in accordance with King Antiochus command, Mattathias
killed him and a royal officer (I Maccabees, 2:15-27). Also, They forcibly
circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of
Israel (2:46). Gaster remarks that it was the distinctive Jewish
culture which Mattathias and his followers sought to defend and preserve
concept of personal liberty did not enter into their outlook
What drove the Maccabees was the severity of Syrian policies
toward the Jews, as well as the response by some within the Jewish community
who readily adopted the Syrian decrees. Regarding the popular response to the
Maccabean uprising: The record makes it perfectly plain that the official
spokesmen of the Jewish community were hostile to it and
the bulk of the
Jewish population was already so far gone in the process of assimilation that
the championship of Israels distinctive identity meant nothing to it.
This more nuanced appreciation of the historical Hanukka challenges
our assumptions about this holiday. With whom do we identify today, and who
are our heroes?
The tactics of the Maccabees are unacceptable in our personal
lives and communities. The premise of democracy and church-state separation
is that religions and cultures must gain adherents through education and personal
commitment, not by coercion, whether through psychological or physical means.
American Jews at all levels of observance and traditionalism have internalized
these premises, and if that represents assimilation, we just have to make the
most of it. We are committed to competing through persuasion and inspiration
For all the fuss we make about our winter holiday,
most modern Jews would identify more with those who tilted toward assimilation
than with the Maccabees. Our American experience has proven that
we can assimilate within the broader society and survive. Some of the vital
issues within our communities are direct imports from the culture within which
we live, and we are richer for this.
The womans role
The role of women in Jewish life is one such example. This
issue became a pivotal American societal question in the 1960s and ultimately
worked its way into every niche of the Jewish world. From the Lubavitch movements
insistence that young girls light Shabbat candles, to women in leadership roles
in Jewish organizations, Modern Orthodox women studying Talmud, the acknowledgement/celebration
of bnot mitzva in all Jewish communities, and the ordination of women
rabbis in all but the Orthodox movement Jewish life has been impacted
by assimilating this important concern into our personal and communal agendas.
The role of rabbi as clergy, the character and role of our
synagogues, and the communal agencies that train and sustain them are other
imports. All one has to do is examine the difference between the American rabbinate
and synagogue world with its Israeli counterpart, and my point is clearly demonstrated.
Yet truth be told, it was the passion of those intolerant and
rejectionist Maccabees that enabled traditional Judaism to survive. Those zealous
few who rejected assimilation and suffered martyrdom rather than violate Shabbat
or kashrut saved Judaism and the Jewish nation. Our unwillingness to imitate
their tactics must be coupled with a deep appreciation for their contribution,
and our own efforts must integrate their passion.
On the other hand, our successful integration has been at a
price. A review of recent population studies and the research shared at the
General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities regarding the waning Jewish
commitments of todays youth clearly illustrate that assimilation has altered
the way Jews identify with their heritage. Hillel and those involved with Jewish
education and identity will have to consider whether to accept the current trends
as norms, and downgrade their definition of Jewish life and their program efforts;
or, whether they will view the current situation of assimilated American Jewry
as a crisis that warrants an intensification of exposure to Jewish tradition.
I vote for the latter.
We can celebrate Hanukka as an integrationist festival. We
can display menorot as the Jewish contribution to the winter holiday season,
accompanied by gift-giving and pride at our ancient battle that taught the world
to fight to protect religious liberty. But we should also be inspired by the
passionate Maccabees to identify enriching and inspiring ways to embrace our
heritage anew. That would honor both our Jewish and American identities and
indeed, would be a true Hanukka miracle.
Rabbi Charles Sheer is the director and Jewish chaplain emeritus of the
Hillel at Columbia University and Barnard College.