Saturday, December 02, 2006

Chashmonayim: Motive & Opportunity?

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In the traditional one-dimensional Orthodox ‘theory of everything’, the story of Chanukah is one of noble God-fearing revolutionaries fighting a paganistic and savage conqueror; an occupying force hell-bent on destroying the Jewish faith and forcing its people to blend in with the rest of the Greek Empire. The war is viewed as yet another classic struggle of absolutes i.e. Good vs. Evil, with no in betweens and no hope for our sainted heroes without supernatural intervention and yet another supernatural event to affirm the kedusha of their victory. This, in a nutshell, is Orthodox view of every conflict in history. For now, we will focus solely on repairing the damage done to the Chanukah story.

The Chazal tell us that Matisyahu and his sons were the first to rebel, becoming incensed at the erection of Greek statue in the town square of Modin. We are told that this was the final insult that led to open revolt against Antiochus. Were the Chashmonayim really the only ones upset about this? You mean to tell me that there wasn’t one single Jew from anywhere else who also hated the invaders, and that all of Israel was passively enduring this harsh rule? I hardly think so. Weren’t other Jews suffering hardships of the occupation as well? Where were they and why haven’t we heard more about them?

Revolutions and uprisings are populist ventures. Populism tends to be a minority affair in terms of numbers. It is rare that populist movements catch on widely unless there are many other social or political variables in place that push the movement into the limelight. Had it not been for the First World War, the final decimation of an already crumbling Russian economy, and the political and religious intrigue surrounding the Romanovs, Bolshevism would have remained a fringe, albeit still rather vocal, philosophical movement. The American Revolution, too, was a populist ideal, as fewer than one-third of the colonists supported the war.

Just how many Jews participated in the revolt we will never know, but if it mirrors any of the other populist revolutions throughout history, the numbers would be somewhere between one-tenth and one-third of the Jewish population. I doubt that these men were all Chashmonayim or Kohanim, so there had to have been thousands of common Jews waiting for a leader to step up and take the nation to war. This man was Matisyahu.

Why ultimately did the Chashmonayim lead the revolt and not others? One would think that any devout, pissed-off Jew would have taken up arms, yet these Kohanim appear to have been first and most vocal. Why them? You have to remember, these were the days when the Kohanim were both the religious and political leaders, controlling not only the Bais HaMikdosh, but also education, a huge chuck of the economy, and they served as political advisors to the Melucha. Having a Kohen of some stature and fame sanction the undertaking lends authority to the effort. Men could go out from all over the hills and farms and invoke the name of ‘Matisyahu HaKohen’ and people would respond. If the Kohen says to do it, then it must be that HaShem is also in favor of it. This was true of many cultures, where war or revolt could not take place before the religious leaders gave it their blessings.

This revolt was brewing for some time already among the general populace of Israel. It is likely that the reason the Greek authorities began to erect statues in the squares of Jewish towns was an act of control; an announcement that “Greece is here!” and the Jews better wise up and behave accordingly. Knowing the stubborn nature of my people as I do, I would not have enjoyed the dangerous job of trying to collect taxes on behalf of the Greek government in ancient Israel. The Greeks, like the Romans many years later, were very happy to oblige the local peoples their superstitions and beliefs as long as the tax money was collected and order was preserved. For the Syrian-Greeks to have now begun to attack the religious authority and culture of Israel meant that there were already widespread troubles for the pagan occupiers.

(It is true that Alexander’s foreign policy was quite lenient and it is possible that Antiochus would have followed that course of action were it not for the Jews taking some advantage of the power shift after Alexander’s death. We tend to view Antiochus’ crackdown on Judaism as an action rather than a reaction. Antiochus may have been anxious to establish his own prominence in the wake of Alexander’s reign and found it difficult to win over the people. Then again, maybe Antiochus was just a total asshole.)

Matisyahu and his sons, the Maccabeans, truly deserve to have the revolt named for them. Matisyahu and his sons were prominent and public figures, easily accessible to the Seleucid gendarmes and those Jews who collaborated with the occupiers. They knew the risks of fighting a power with heavy numbers, heavy arms, and a very long reach. They knew their status and their lives were on the line. For a public and wealthy figure to stick his neck out like that shows uncommon valor. The Chashmonayim also did something that would be considered unique in our day and age. They actually fought alongside those Jews who joined the cause. Matisyahu and his sons never hid behind the Ephod or the smoke of the Ketores. They fought and died with brave common men fighting for a common purpose. I wish we had more leaders like that today. (I could offer a list of several, but I doubt you’ll like any of them.)

It is also probable that not all Kohanim and Jews were enthused by Matisyahu’s war on Antiochus. Some of them had already decided to cooperate with his regime, serving both the interests of Seleucids and their own ambitions. Some of those certainly hoped to influence the Seleucids to allow Jewish practice to go unchallenged. Some hoped to ride out the storm and pray for the best outcome. One can be sure that when news of revolt spread to Yerushalayim that there were many whose only response could be summed up by a heavy sigh and “Oh shit, not again.” To be honest, had I lived in those times, I would have had very mixed feelings about a revolt with such little apparent chance of success. After all, I have always been a bit of a ‘Hellenist’ deep down.

In Shmoneh Esreh during Chanuka we add “…..strong over the weak, the few over the many, and pure over the impure.” The authors of this tefillah mistakenly assumed there were miracles involved that allowed for a victory where none should be had. Occupations never last long because, as we have learned from countless such endeavors, since the indigenous peoples fight much harder for their home turf and, knowing the terrain, have a distinct home-field advantage that no number of conquering battalions can master. In truth, our numbers did not need to be greater to win; we only had to apply the force of our will. In such a situation, strengths and weaknesses become ambiguous. In terms of ‘few and many’, it is likely that many of those initially reluctant to join the revolt did wait and see how successful the campaign would become before taking an active role. The ‘few’ may have become ‘many’ as time went on.

There is one other point to make as to why the Chashmonayim and other Kohanim may have led the revolt, and it isn’t quite as noble as one would imagine, yet I wouldn’t say that it diminishes their heroism in any way. Now it is alleged that the Kohanim had were hot-heads; men prone to bad tempers and of little patience. It is surprising then, that it took so long for them to speak out and take action, considering that Antiochus had already screwed with the Avodas HaBayis. That should have been quite enough! Yet, it wasn’t. What other factors, in addition to the incident in Modin, may have contributed to Matisyahu’s anger? What else was going on that might have pushed him to the edge but not quite over it?

I do not know how the tax structure of ancient Israel was set up, how it was enforced, or how much was really collected. We do know that Shlomo HaMelech imposed very high taxes on the Jews and his son, Rechavam, when advised to lower the people’s tax burden, laughed at the idea and ended up splitting the kingdom in two because of it. Aside from the being taxed by the melucha, Jews also had the mitzvah of paying teruma and ma’aser to Kohanim and Levi’im. I am not sure how accountants handled the legitimate deductions in those days, but one thing was certain, the more wealth the Jews had to pay out to the Melucha or to Antiochus, the less was available for the Kohanim. Matisyahu and his sons had a very personal stake in the revolt, and I think it played a major role in their ultimate decision to get involved. Even in the American Revolution, which few would argue was not a noble cause, it was not until taxation became the issue that common man and land-owner alike were willing join the idealists in risky combat. I think our Chashmonayim saw their former status shrinking and fearing they might have to get real jobs, like the rest of the Jews, did not wish to give up an aristocratic and lucrative way of life.

The Chashmonayim may have had very good reasons other than money for fighting to maintain their economic status. Like it or not, whether a Kohen is a self-serving bastard or a tzadik gamur, it is still a mitzvah to pay terumah and ma’aser. If the Kohen, charged with ensuring the overall spiritual health of the nation, must advocate the fulfillment of all mitzvos, then these, too, should be high on their list of mitzvos to promote. We don’t feel the burden of those mitzvos involved with farming today, but in an agrarian society like ancient Israel the laws governing growing, harvest, and tithing were daily considerations. As in all things, there were likely to be those who were 100% sincere and those whose sincerity was somewhat lacking.

Heroism takes on many forms and has many motivations. Actions have a strange way of hiding the true intent. Those that appear as heroes and icons for their courage are often not acting from noble purpose. Let it be said again that none of the ulterior motives the Chashmonayim may, or may not, of had take away one bit from their heroism and bravery. If their intents were noble, selfish, or a little of both, it matters not. They took great risks and they sacrificed. I think they might have waited too long to start a revolt, but everything in life comes down to the proper timing. It’s possible that Matisyahu deliberately provoked the enemy in Modin as a feign to draw attention from the grass roots organizing that had been going on for months.

Honestly, I never take the Chazal at their word for anything anymore. Their take is always one-dimensional and shallow.

Maccabee Chai!


Ben said...

man, you are really on a roll these last few days. If you want to hop on a real "frum world" controversy check out a blog called "orthomom" in regards to a local NY VAAD withdrawing it's kosher supervision from a local market and all the sheeple/lemmings mindlesly march in lockstep to the sound of rabinical shofar and how the changing demographics of a NY neighborhood has destroyed a beautiful shul. Your input would be appriciated

Shlomo said...

Thanks Ben. I will!

shtriemel said...

"I could offer a list of several, but I doubt you’ll like any of them"

Shock me if you can...

Mao? Castro? Certainly not Washington...

NYapikores said...

Hi Shlomo,
fun read. hanuka always fascinated me. you didnt even have to go into the whole mareshkeit with the oil. the supposed 'nes' of few over many was enough. and its a myth tooas you lets assume there were, say, a million jews in eretz yisrael in those days, and lets say 25% was anti helenist (for arguments sake), or 250000. and that a tenth (25000) of those were active anti helenists. im sure there were far fewer than 25000 greek/syrian troops in the country. so much for few over many.

Shlomo said...


yasher koach for the kudos.

The few over the many is generally understood as few Jews vs. many Greeks within the Land of Israel. Maybe it means something else altogether.

The Chazal are not above calling fellow Jews lamalshinim, zeydim, oyevim, etc. as we see in shmoneh esreh. Perhaps the 'few & holy' are Jews who want to fight and the 'many and the unclean' are those who don't? That would agree with the prevailing sense that history offers most rebellions.

Secondly, 'few and many' could refer to the Greeks/Syrians in general. After all, there were more of them than us, those numbers just were back in other places. Antiochus could have brought in 1000s more soldiers, too.