An ignorant 'New York Times' trashes the Maccabees

In the latest puerile and asinine op-ed from The New York Times about Jews and Judaism, novelist Michael David Lukas seeks to dampen the joyous energy of the festival of Hanukkah by adding a bummer liberal twist. In Hanukkah, he claims, we are celebrating the defeat of the pallbearers of Western culture at the hands of intolerant fundamentalist guerrillas. The Maccabees, he essentially argues, were a bunch of rightwing nuts. It's just an "eight-night-long celebration of religious fundamentalism and violence" he declares, one based not on doughnuts or menorahs, but on "subjugating assimilated Jews."

Lukas isn't the first to make this silly claim.

A columnist for The Forward, just a few years ago, took it upon herself to sentence the Maccabees to the "wrong side of history." The Washington Post listed "Hanukkah celebrates a fight for religious freedom" as one of its five Hanukkah myths. Those who make this argument seem to draw an implicit parallel between the Maccabees and the "other" fundamentalist death cults we see across the world today claiming divine commission to combat Western culture. They're also parroting a theory that is according to both the Jewish and secular historical traditions, overwhelmingly baseless.

The Hasmonean revolt was not a fundamentalist — religious movement sworn to the destruction of liberal Western ideologies. It was, instead, a popular campaign to safeguard the freedom of a people to freely practice their faith and traditions regardless of the whims of an emperor. Unlike fundamentalist terrorist groups, which are born from intolerance of other faiths, the Maccabees fought to end the Greek intolerance of theirs.

Moreover, the Maccabees did not wage war against a mostly benevolent superpower encouraging religious, political and cultural reforms. Their mission, rather, was to stymie the very deadly plans of a megalomaniacal, absolutist dictator who drew no limits on the level of oppression and exploitation he would thrust upon the powerless citizens of a tiny client-state.

BEFORE WE begin to explore the depth and depravity of Antiochus' crimes, we must first establish the crucial fact that they represented a stunning departure from Hellenistic imperial norms. Crucial, because it proves that the Jews did not revolt against Hellenistic culture — which, by the time of the revolt in 167 BCE, had been around for at least six decades — but against a king who sought to enforce that culture both to the exclusion of all others and at the pain of death. In other words, the Maccabees revolted against a tyrant who sought to destroy Judaism.

After all, from the moment Hellenistic kings conquered ancient Israel, they brought their ideologies with them. That never seemed to bother the rabbinic Jewish leadership. On the contrary, the Jewish high priest Simon the Great — probably a New York Times-certified "extremist," considering the rabbis of the Talmud laud him — offered the warmest imaginable welcome to Alexander the Great during the first Greek foray into Israel.

During that campaign, the kingdoms of Gaza, Tyre and Sidon waged futile battles to keep Alexander and his culture far out of their homelands. When he came to Jerusalem, however, Jewish tradition teaches that the Jewish High Priest Simon left the city to greet the Macedonian king. There, he begged that Alexander spare the Temple, which he described as a "house in which we pray for you and for your kingdom not to be destroyed." This stunning symbol of Jewish-Hellenistic cooperation has been preserved not in the books of Hellenized Jews, but in the Pharisaic, rabbinically authored Babylonian Talmud (Yoma, 69a.) While this story stands in stark contrast to the narrative told by The New York Times and Lukas, it seems all but natural, once you accept that, for the Jews of ancient Israel, the existence of competing ideologies in their native homeland just wasn't an issue. After Alexander's death, and the division of his empire into Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Antigonid Greece, religious tolerance became a central tenet of Hellenistic rule in general, and of the Seleucids in particular.

According to the great Jewish historian Josephus, when King Ptolemy IV gained control over Jerusalem after the battle of Raphia in 217 BCE, he paid homage to his new Jewish subjects by offering sacrifices to their God in the Temple. Even when after flaunted Jewish cultural norms by forcing his way into the Holy of Holies, he elicited a moderate response from what appears to have been a moderate Jewish community.

When Antiochus III defeated the Ptolemies, beginning a three-decade era of Seleucid control over ancient Judea, he too allowed all his Jewish subjects to live in accordance with their native laws, promising even to protect and subsidize the Temple. 2 Maccabees even seems to suggest that, far from being an anomaly, it was actually standard practice for Hellenistic Kings to foster and even fund Jewish ritual, "to the extent that King Seleucus of Asia defrayed from his revenues all the expenses connected with the services of the sacrifices."

This policy of tolerance was known to exist in other areas of Seleucid rule as well: one clay cylinder found at the Babylonian Ezida temple complex at Borsippa presents King Antiochus I as a patron of a local Babylonian non-Hellenistic religious cult, even describing him as "caretaker" of chief Babylonian deities.

Ultimately, then, the Jews rebelled less against Hellenistic norms than against Antiochus IV's departure from them. That 60 years of coexistence would give way to violence only after the aberration of Antiochus IV's persecutions, proves the crucial point: the Jews fought not against a system of Hellenistic belief, but a system of Hellenistic oppression.

IF THE New York Times must find a villain, though, they needn't look far. Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the founding father of the global scourge known as religious persecution.

He may have been seeking to solidify support before launching his dream-conquest of Egypt. He may have been lashing out after the fledgling, yet formidable Roman republic had forced him to abandon his plans. Either way, few historians would deny the brutal regime of religious discrimination enacted by the king. His laws sought to stamp out Judaism from amongst the Jews, replacing their ancestral beliefs with politically convenient demagoguery.

(The king suffixed his name with the title Epiphanes, or "god Manifest.") Still, it was not Antiochus' ideas that spurred the Jews to revolt. It was his brutality.

Jewish troubles with Antiochus seem to have begun when he encountered locals in Jerusalem who supported his rivals in Ptolemaic Egypt.

"Being thereto disposed beforehand," we are told, Antiochus "came upon the Jews with a great army, took their city by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy."

After that, "overcome with his violent passions," the king "compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swines flesh upon the altar." When the Jews, in turn, opposed his new rules, "the most approved among them were put to death." The Greek general Bacchides, a man of "natural barbarity," is said to have "indulged all sorts of the extremist wickedness, and tormented the worthiest of the inhabitants, man by man, and threatened their city every day with open destruction."

The story of Hanukkah, as chronicled in this source, comes to a close when the Jews choose a king by "their own free consent" — a remarkably liberal ending for what Lukas would have you believe is the story of al-Qaida garbed in prayer shawls.

This scathing account of Antiochus IV, parenthetically, comes not from fundamentalist Jewish religious text, but Flavius Josephus, arguably the most famous Hellenistic Jew of all time (The Jewish Wars I, 1:1-3).

Just last week, millions of Americans celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday based on celebrating brave men and women who were forced to venture to a new world to practice the faith of their choosing. This festival of religious freedom has its roots in the story of Hanukkah, which the Jews offered the world nearly 1,800 years before. This holiday of liberty is just one small part of Judaism's rich legacy of wisdom, ritual and values. Perhaps, instead of assaulting it, Jews like Michael Lukas need to take pride in Judaism's inspiring heritage of freedom and tolerance, if only for eight days a year.

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About the Author

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, 'America's Rabbi,' whom the Washington Post calls 'the most famous rabbi in America,' is the international bestselling author of 30 books, including his most recent, "The Israel Warrior." Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.