It’s time to investigate Hanukkah. For those of us who have a cursory knowledge of the holiday, Hanukkah means the triumph of Jews over the Greeks, Judaism over foreign religions, and the power of G-d against pagan outsiders. However, when one looks at the Maccabees themselves, they are not as black-and-white as some may think.
First of all, the Maccabees—also known as the Hasmonean dynasty—weren’t particularly heroic. When Hellenism came to Jerusalem, Mattathias, the patriarch of the Maccabee family, didn’t resist it. In fact, as Columbia professor Seth Schwartz noted in our “Jews and Judaism in Antiquity” class, he fled to his hometown of Modi’in (1 Maccabees 2:1). Why would one who was so militantly zealous for the law flee the center of foreign domination in Judea? Indeed, Mattathias only intervened on behalf of the Jewish law, striking down an individual about to sacrifice to pagan gods, in his home village (1 Maccabees 2:24). Perhaps he was not a national leader at first, but a local strong man in his hometown.
Another myth-buster: The Hasmoneans weren’t so anti-Greek; they entered into later alliances with Greek kings, and the king Alexander Balas made Jonathan the Maccabee High Priest. This image does not fit with the heroic image of the Maccabees that the holiday of Hanukkah gives us.
Undoubtedly, Mattathias and his sons showed moments of courage. Judah Maccabee’s battle heroics are some of the high points. However, taking the Maccabees as all-around heroes with few faults, as the holiday tradition represents them, is a view that has been glossed by history. The Hasmoneans were flesh and blood, living men, whom even contemporary tradition does not seem to have regarded as faultless. To be sure, the good, especially in 1 Maccabees, outweighs the bad for the Hasmoneans, but they are fallible people.
What does it mean for modern tradition to see these men, who are seen to be anti-Greek by modern tradition, as heroes? The Maccabees have been polarized, shown as one-dimensional figures, by the holiday of Hanukkah. When reconstructing who the Hasmoneans were, we must realize that, as politicians, the Maccabees had to balance any anti-pagan sentiments they had with practicality. Alliances with the Seleucid Greek kings, if they could make them, would help establish a fledgling Jewish state’s authority. It is with the Seleucid king’s permission that Jonathan becomes High Priest and his brother, Simon, gains enough authority to eventually revolt.
To understand the Hasmonean struggle, one has to remove as much holiday glossing as possible. It’s nearly impossible to do that, however, with the remove of time and modern biases. What are we to do with the holiday of Hanukkah, then? We should value it for what it is and what it shows us about Jewish conceptions of identity. The Jews, as a people, regarded themselves as one with distinct traditions from the exclusive Greek rituals. Whether their antipathy to the Greeks was the cause of the Hasmonean struggle is debatable. However, the social conception of the Jewish people was the Jews’ own construction. They saw themselves as a divinely-supported people who had passed the test of time and conquered several foreign comers with the help of G-d. To a degree, that same ideology pervades today.