An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Charles Sheer

Hero Worship: The Maccabees’ zealotry gives us pause, but their passion cannot be denied

Charles Sheer


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….The 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 Israel’s 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 alone.

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 woman’s 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 movement’s insistence that young girls light Shabbat candles, to women in leadership roles in Jewish organizations, Modern Orthodox women studying Talmud, the acknowledgement/celebration of b’not 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 today’s 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.

Home | Get To Know Us | Increase Your Knowledge | Talk With Like Minded People | Transform Your Community | Stay Informed | Find What You Need | Site Guide