Were the Maccabees Haredi?

chanukiahLast year, a friend of mine who identifies with the haredi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) stream of Judaism matter-of-factly referred to the Maccabees as “haredi warriors”.  Half-jokingly (but only half) I responded that I actually think of them as dati-leumi (National Religious) warriors.[1]

Contemplating Chanukah this year, I realized that at least one other group also tries to “adopt” the Maccabees in light of their own world-view: Secular Zionists.  The Maccabees occupied a central place in the ethos of early Secular Zionist education (even though some of the leaders of the movement were avid atheists).[2]

So at least three different contemporary camps all claim to be the spiritual descendants of Matityahu and his five sons.  The fact that we are all still grasping at their legacy almost 2200 years later certainly speaks volumes about the spiritual depth of their movement.  But who is right?  Were they haredi?  Were they secular Zionists?  Dati-Leumi?

Let’s see if we can unpack this debate by understanding what aspect of their message each group latches on to.  Here, as I see it, is a brief description of each group’s claim:

The Maccabees were secular Zionists.   This way of thinking views them as freedom fighters battling for political independence.  Yes, the secularists would admit, Chanukah does celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple in 165 BCE, and that was certainly a religious event.  But, they might argue, after they had purified the Temple, the Maccabees didn’t stop fighting until they had established an independent Jewish state some 25 years later.   And their descendants, the later Hashmonai kings, were Hellenists themselves who earned the disdain of the rabbis.

Similar to early Israelis, the Maccabees were a group of courageous patriots with no military experience taking on the much larger and better-equipped armies of an imperial power, with their courage and dedication as their most important weapons.  And their goal was a Jewish State. This is why secular Zionists view them as role models.

The Maccabees were Haredim.  My haredi friend, though, would undoubtedly take great offense at the idea of calling the Maccabees “Zionists”, even without the “secular” label.  He would argue that their battle was motivated exclusively by the desire for religious freedom, with political independence and military power simply being means to accomplish that exclusively religious goal.  After all, my friend might point out, it had been over 400 years since the last independent Jewish state and nobody started a rebellion until Antiochus IV issued his decrees forbidding the practice of Judaism,

My friend would acknowledge that it’s true that after the miracle of Chanukah the Maccabees and their descendants continued fighting for independence, and eventually lost sight of their religious motives and became Hellenists themselves.  That is why, he would say, the rabbis established Chanukah in memory of the miracle in the Temple, and sharply criticized the Hashmonai kings for what they did afterwards!

The lesson of this, he would say, is clear – there is no place for Zionism as a religious value. A Jewish state might have value if it can help us observe our religion better, but the only thing that really matters is religion, not political or military power.

And what do I say?  I stick to what I told my friend last year: The Maccabees were Religious Zionists!  Precisely because both of the above points have some truth to them, it means that neither one of them is correct to the exclusion the other.

On the one hand, as the haredim say, anyone who reads the history of the period knows that the Maccabees were motivated by the desire for religious freedom.  But, as the Zionists saw, the lesson they learned is that in order to safeguard that freedom, we need a state and an army of our own.  When we are ruled over by non-Jews, we can’t ever serve Hashem fully.

The Rambam makes this point very clearly at the beginning of his Laws of Chanukah (3:1):

In the [days of the] Second Temple, the Kings of Greece issued decrees against the Jews to eradicate their religion…until the God of our fathers had mercy on them…and the Hashmonaim appointed a king from among the Kohanim and monarchy returned to the Jewish People for over two hundred years, until the destruction of the Second Temple.

He then goes on to discuss the miracle of the oil, and explains that because of these miracles – both of them – we have the celebration of Chanukah.  The miracle of the oil symbolizes the triumph of the religious spirit of the Maccabees – due to their self-sacrificing heroism, God performed a miracle that allowed the light of Torah (symbolized by the light of the Menorah) to burn far brighter and longer than it logically “should have”.  But this spiritual miracle was only possible because of the war fought by a Jewish army, in search of Jewish independence and sovereignty.

The Maccabees understood the need for both aspects.  They were not haredim, and they were not secular.  They were Religious Zionists, and Chanukah is the original Yom HaAtzmaut.

[1]In general, I try to avoid using single-term labels like “haredi” and “dati-leumi” (there are others as well) to refer to an entire philosophy of life and method of interpreting traditional sources.  I don’t think this type of oversimplification does any good, and it does quite a lot of damage as well.  Nevertheless, the terms do mean something, and at times we need to talk about the ideological disagreements that at times divide us.

[2]Some of the Israeli Chanukah songs many of us were taught as children originated in this time period. Even today, teachers in religious kindergartens often teach these songs without understanding some of the sentiments they express.  For those who understand Hebrew and are familiar with traditional Jewish texts, take note of the deliberate transformation of religious themes into atheistic messages reflected in these two familiar passages: “מי ימלל גבורות ישראל אותם מי ימנה הן בכל דור יקום הגיבור גואל העם”, and “האירו, הדליקו נרות חנוכה רבים – על הניסים ועל  הנפלאות אשר חוללו המכבים”.

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