Wednesday, December 21, 2011

  • Wednesday, December 21, 2011
  • Elder of Ziyon
  • ,
From Diana Muir Appelbaum at Jewish Ideas Daily:
This is the 2,179th anniversary of the world's first war of national liberation. There have been many since. To a surprising extent, such wars have followed the pattern first established by the Maccabees. They, like later heads of independence movements, were leaders of a people conquered and occupied by a great empire. They fought to claim the right of national self-determination.

...There are no prophets in the book of Maccabees, and no miracles. This is the story of a man and a nation, faced with the awful choice of watching their nation die or risking their own death, who take their fate into their own hands and fight for their right to be governed by Jewish rulers under Jewish laws—the right we call national self-determination.

Most aspects of the Maccabees' ancient war are uncannily familiar. Not the Seleucid army's elephants, of course; but the Greek war machine was beaten by Matityahu's untrained volunteers, just as modern wars for independence often feature well-equipped imperial armies fighting ad hoc forces. Other familiar patterns are also there in I Maccabees. The Jews convened national assemblies, much as modern liberation movements do. They struggled to form a unified command structure. They sought aid from the Seleucid's rival great powers, Rome and Sparta.

The Maccabean war was also just as messy as modern wars of national liberation. The Jews fought against a great empire; but Jews also fought other Jews for principle and power, Jewish Hellenizers against Jews who stood for the ancient covenant.

Despite these ambiguities, the victories won under the leadership of Matityahu and his five sons produced two centuries of autonomous Judean government, giving Jewish intellectuals the time and opportunity to cement an enduring Jewish culture. Without those two centuries of self-government, it is doubtful that Jewish identity would have withstood two millennia during which Jews in Israel lived under foreign occupation and most Jews lived in exile.

The Book of Maccabees is found in the Coptic, Orthodox, and Catholic Bibles; but few Jews have ever read it. Though it was written in Hebrew by a Jew, it survived antiquity only in Greek translation. This is because it is a very dangerous book. To read Maccabees is to risk being persuaded that peoples like the Jews had and have rights to national self-determination. Acting on such an idea, by starting a war of national liberation, is a perilous thing to do.

...Jewish leaders struggling for a Jewish future in the second and third centuries knew about such consequences. Large-scale Jewish uprisings aimed at national liberation had failed in the years 70, 115, and 132 C.E., with horrific results. Matityahu was well aware that the idea of a right to national self-determination was the most dangerous idea the Jews could possibly have entertained.

Hanukkah, the holiday that celebrates Judean independence, was tamed in later years by focusing on its purely religious aspects. The Book of Maccabees was not added to the Jewish canon. Hebrew copies were not made.

But this incendiary text exists. Pick it up and read it. I dare you.
There are differing opinions on why the Book of Maccabees was not canonized. Dr. Rachael Turkienicz mentions a few:

It has also been suggested that the exclusion of the Books of the Maccabees can be traced to the political rivalry that existed during the late Second Temple Period between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees, a priestly class in charge of the Temple, openly rejected the oral interpretations that the Pharisees, the proto-rabbinic class, openly promoted. The Maccabees were a priestly family, while the rabbis who may have determined the final form of the biblical canon at Jamnia were descended from the Pharisees. Is it possible that the exclusion of the Books of Maccabees was one of the last salvos in the battle between the Pharisees and Sadducees? Would the rabbis at Jamnia have been inclined to canonize a document that so clearly praised the priestly Hasmonean family?

Perhaps the answer lies more within the realm of pragmatism and politics. The Books of Maccabees describe the revolt led by the Maccabean family against the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes. A couple of centuries later, Jewish scholars found themselves in Jamnia with the Temple destroyed and Jerusalem lost. Their circumstances were the result of their own failed revolt against the Romans.

Perhaps they felt it unwise to promote a text that heralded the successful outcome of a Jewish revolt. It may have posed a threat both internally and externally. The Romans would certainly not look kindly upon the popularization of such a text, since it might very well reintroduce the concept of revolt to a population desperately trying to survive the devastating outcome of its own failed attempts. Ironically, this very internal/external struggle lies at the core of the Hanukkah story, and perhaps it was this very struggle playing out again in history that prevented the basic texts about Hanukkah from being included within the biblical canon.
This last reason is somewhat congruent with Appelbaum's conjecture, although from a different angle (self-preservation from without rather than suppressing ideas from within.)

I'm not sure that the reason that Maccabees is not included in the Tanach is so convoluted, though. Appelbaum says herself that "there are no prophets in the book of Maccabees, and no miracles." It is also not a set of aphorisms or praises to God, like Mishlei (Proverbs), Tehillim (Psalms) or Kohelet (Ecclesiastes.) That by itself makes it anomalous compared to the canonical books of the Tanach. (The Book of Ruth is also without prophets or obvious miracles, but it has its own lessons as well as a place in the historical context of David's lineage.)

Perhaps the answer can be found if we can find the original source of the Al Hanissim prayer. That inserted prayer, said during Chanukah, thanks God more for the military victory than for the miracle of the oil. But it is unclear when it was written; from what I can tell the earliest known mention is in the 9th century Siddur of Rav Amram but some speculate that it was written by the family of Matisyahu (Matthias) themselves.  (The Talmud mentions the victory but doesn't dwell on it and then goes into the halachic issues of lighting the menorah.)

If we knew when Al Hanissim was inserted into the prayers, we might have a better idea of whether the idea  of a Jewish military revolt was considered dangerous or not at the time of the canonization of the Tanach.  But it also might hint to another reason Maccabees is not in the canon - because it was not written as if the military victory was miraculous.

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