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.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at New York Times

More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East