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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.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

How Lebanon—and Hizballah—Conned and Humiliated Rex Tillerson

Feb. 21 2018

Last Thursday, the American secretary of state arrived in Beirut to express Washington’s continued support for the country’s government, which is now entirely aligned with Hizballah. His visit came shortly after Israel’s showdown with Hizballah’s Iranian protectors in Syria and amid repeated warnings from Jerusalem about the terrorist organization’s growing threat to Israeli security. To Tony Badran, Tillerson’s pronouncements regarding Lebanon have demonstrated the incoherence of the Trump administration’s policy:

[In Beirut], Tillerson was made to sit alone in a room with no American flag in sight and wait—as photographers took pictures and video—before Hizballah’s chief allies in Lebanon’s government, President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law the foreign minister, finally came out to greet him. Images of the U.S. secretary of state fidgeting in front of an empty chair were then broadcast across the Middle East to symbolize American impotence at a fateful moment for the region. . . .

Prior to heading to Beirut, Tillerson gave an interview to the American Arabic-language station al-Hurra, in which he emphasized that Hizballah was a terrorist organization, and that the United States expected cooperation from the “Lebanon government to deal very clearly and firmly with those activities undertaken by Lebanese Hizballah that are unacceptable to the rest of the world.” . . . But then, while in Jordan, Tillerson undermined any potential hints of firmness by reading from an entirely different script—one that encapsulates the confused nonsense that is U.S. Lebanon policy. Hizballah is “influenced by Iran,” Tillerson said. But, he added, “We also have to acknowledge the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon”—which apparently makes being “influenced by Iran” and being a terrorist group OK. . . .

The reality on the ground in Lebanon, [however], is [that] Hizballah is not only a part of the Lebanese government, it controls it—along with all of the country’s illustrious “institutions,” including the Lebanese Armed Forces. . . .

[Meanwhile], Israel’s tactical Syria-focused approach to the growing threat on its borders has kept the peace so far, but it has come at a cost. For one thing, it does not address the broader strategic factor of Iran’s growing position in Syria, and it leaves Iran’s other regional headquarters in Lebanon untouched. Also, it sets a pace that is more suitable to Iran’s interests. The Iranians can absorb tactical strikes so long as they are able to consolidate their strategic position in Syria and Lebanon. Not only have the Iranians been able to fly a drone into Israel but also their allies and assets have made gains on the ground near the northern Golan and in Mount Hermon. As Iran’s position strengthens, and as Israel’s military and political hand weakens, the Israelis will soon be left with little choice other than to launch a devastating war.

To avoid that outcome, the United States needs to adjust its policy—and fast. Rather than leaving Israel to navigate around the Russians and go after Iran’s assets in Syria and Lebanon on its own, it should endorse Israel’s red lines regarding Iran in Syria, and amplify its campaign against Iranian assets. In addition, it should revise its Lebanon policy and end its investment in the Hizballah-controlled order there.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Politics & Current Affairs, Rex Tillerson, U.S. Foreign policy