From the Maccabees, A Lesson on Separation of Church and State

Dec. 28 2016

Mattathias the Hasmonean, leader of the revolt against the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus, was also a member of the priestly caste. After the successful expulsion of the Greeks from the land of Israel, his son Judah the Maccabee and their descendants assumed both the high priesthood and, in the absence of a legitimate descendant of the Davidic dynasty, the kingship. The merging of these two roles earned the Hasmoneans criticism in rabbinic and proto-rabbinic sources. Richard Hidary explains:

The Hasmoneans themselves had no shortage of detractors even in their own days, and more so after their downfall in 63 BCE. Josephus reports that the Pharisees reviled King John Hyrcanus, the grandson of Mattathias, and insisted that he should be content with the monarchy and leave the spiritual leadership to a descendant of the Zadokite family, the legitimate high-priestly dynasty, thus restoring the biblical separation between political and priestly power.

The Babylonian Talmud echoes a similar complaint against Hyrcanus’ son, Alexander Yannai. Both sources tell the story of Pharisees pelting Alexander Yannai with etrogim (citrons) on the holiday of Sukkot, leading to a civil war that left tens of thousands dead. We should recall that at the time they told this story, both Josephus and the rabbis sought peaceful relations with the Romans and wanted to discourage any “zealous” [a code-word for religiously motivated violent] behavior by their co-religionists. It is not surprising that they did not look back in admiration or nostalgia to the Hasmonean kings. . . .

The groups [criticizing] the Hasmoneans, mostly Pharisees, did not object to Jewish sovereignty, but they did object to the Hasmonean consolidation of political and religious power. The latter was to be the domain of the Levites and priests, while kingship was the exclusive inheritance of the tribe of Judah [of which King David was a member]. More than a thousand years later, the 13th-century Spanish rabbi Moses Naḥmanides would attribute the rapid fall of the Hasmonean dynasty to its illegitimate consolidation of priestly and monarchical power.

The books of Maccabees (there are four of them) inspired many generations of religious zealots, including the Bar Kokhba rebels and Christian martyrs. The early rabbis rejected these books from the canon not only because of the late date of their composition but likely also because they wanted to suppress their revolutionary message. When it came to the celebration of Hanukkah, however, the rabbis found themselves in a quandary. On the one hand, they too yearned for Jewish national sovereignty; the success of the Hasmoneans, even if short-lived and imperfect, could not be denied. On the other hand, their antipathy to the combination of kingship and the priesthood and the subsequent Hasmonean corruption forced them to reject the history presented in the books of Maccabees.

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More about: Hasmoneans, History & Ideas, Maccabees, Pharisees, Religion and politics, Second Temple

The Struggle for Iraq, and What It Means for Israel

Oct. 17 2018

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, Iraq became a battleground between the U.S. and Iran, as the latter sent troops, money, and arms to foment and support an insurgency. The war on Islamic State, along with the Obama administration’s effort to align itself with the Islamic Republic, led to a temporary truce, but also gave Tehran-backed militias a great deal of power. Iran has also established a major conduit of supplies through Iraq to support its efforts in Syria. Meanwhile, it is hard to say if the recent elections have brought a government to Baghdad that will be pro-American or pro-Iranian. Eldad Shavit and Raz Zimmt comment how these developments might affect Israel:

Although statements by the U.S. administration have addressed Iran’s overall activity in the region, they appear to emphasize the potential for confrontation in Iraq. First and foremost, this [emphasis] stems from the U.S. perception of this arena as posing the greatest danger, in light of the extensive presence of U.S. military and civilian personnel operating throughout the country, and in light of past experience, which saw many American soldiers attacked by Shiite militias under Iranian supervision. The American media have reported that U.S. intelligence possesses information indicating that the Shiite militias and other elements under Iranian auspices intend to carry out attacks against American targets and interests. . . .

In light of Iran’s intensifying confrontation with the United States and its mounting economic crisis, Tehran finds it essential to maintain its influence in Iraq, particularly in the event of a future clash with the United States. The Iranian leadership has striven to send a message of deterrence to the United States regarding the implications of a military clash. . . .

A recently published report also indicates that Iran transferred ballistic missiles to the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq. Although Iran has denied this report, it might indeed attempt to transfer advanced military equipment to the Shiite militias in order to improve their capabilities in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and/or Israel, or a confrontation between [the militias] and the central government in Baghdad.

From Israel’s perspective, after years when the Iraqi arena received little attention from Israeli decision makers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have mentioned the possibility of Israel’s taking action against Iranian targets in Iraq. In this context, and particularly in light of the possibility that Iraq could become an arena of greater conflict between the United States and Iran, it is critical that there be full coordination between Israel and the United States. This is of particular importance due to [the American estimation of] stability in Iraq as a major element of the the campaign against Islamic State, which, though declared a success, is not yet complete.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Israel & Zionism, U.S. Foreign policy