Commentary Magazine


The Meaning of the Maccabees

To the Editor:

Theodor Gaster (“The True Glory of the Maccabean Revolt,” December 1952) maintains that the Maccabean revolt was not a people’s uprising but a minority movement because “official spokesman of the Jewish community were hostile to it” and “the bulk of the Jewish population was already so far gone in the process of assimilation that the champion of Israel’s distinctive identity meant nothing to it.”

While it is true that the leaders of the Jewish community had succumbed to Hellenism, this hardly signifies that the uprising was a minority movement. As to the bulk of the Jews being assimilated, Bickerman writes in The Maccabees (p. 36): “The mass of the peasantry, on the other hand, remained secretly devoted to the old faith. Judah ruthlessly extirpated the few in the countryside who followed the reform party, but at the same time he restored freedom of faith to the majority.”

This would put the shoe on the other foot. The few, it seems, suppressed the religious freedom of the many, while the Maccabees represented the active leadership of the majority and led the battle for its rights. Dr. Gaster himself points to the great number who resisted Hellenization when he tells us how Antiochus massacred some forty thousand Jews in Jerusalem alone. . . .

On the matter of Hebraic and Hellenic cultural distinctions, one may agree that these have been oversimplified. However, the mass appeal of the Hebraic culture stressed virtue and morality while Hellenic culture in its effect on its masses made for the deterioration of these essential values. When the priests surrendered “their priestly linens for the nakedness of Greek sports” (Bickerman), the Maccabees arose not only to fight for the right to be different but to reassert the qualitatively distinct virtues of Judaism and to stress a higher standard of moral conduct.

When we utter the prayer “Thou didst deliver the many into the hands of the few” we still mean the Syrian hordes into the hands of the few Maccabees rather than assimilationists into the hands of pietists. Similarly, it is still of these Syrians that we say “the strong into the hands of the weak, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the arrogant into the hands of them that occupied themselves with Thy Torah.”

(Rabbi) Milton H. Elefant
B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation
University of Maine
Orono, Maine

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