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

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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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf