Like all (or at least most) oversimplifications, this one is not entirely incorrect. There really was a King Antiochus on the throne of the Seleucid Empire—the Greek-speaking kingdom with its capital at Antioch in today’s Syria that ruled over the Land of Israel in the second century BCE—and he did promote the eradication of traditional Jewish norms of worship even in as sacred a space as the Jerusalem Temple to make them more universal and less ethnically distinct. There was every reason to expect the ragtag group of guerilla warriors who gathered around the Maccabees—who seem to have come out of nowhere to do battle with Antiochus’s legions—there really was every reason to expect them to go down to defeat, yet they were successful and managed against all odds to expel the king’s armies from what was in those days, after all, a province of his own empire and—even more unimaginably—to wrest some version of autonomy from the central government and thus to install a kind of self-rule that lasted for almost a century. And if the darker part of the story—the one we generally ignore featuring large numbers of Jewish people more than eager to make Jewish ways less particularistic and more in step with the great cultural tide of the day (called Hellenism, literally “Greekishism,” because of its origins in the culture of classical Greece) and very happy to have the king’s support in their effort to reform the Jerusalem cult and make it more appealing to themselves and to outsiders looking in—if that part is generally ignored, that’s probably all for the best. Who wants an ambiguous yontif anyway? Much better to stick with the Hebrew School version and not to stir the pot unnecessarily! We don’t have enough to deal with as it is?This week, therefore, I would like not to talk about the well-known part of the Chanukah story and its key players at all. (Shelter Rockers will hear me speak about that part of things in shul on Shabbat anyway.) Instead, I’d like to start the story in media res and begin to say why Chanukah really does still matter by introducing a personality that almost no readers will ever have heard of, one Judah Aristobulus.
And here he is, at least as Guillaume Rouillé, the inventor of the paperback, imagined him in sixteenth-century Lyons. But who was he really? And why do I want to start my peculiar, start-in-the-middle version of the Chanukah story with him of all people?Everybody has heard of Judah the Maccabee and most know that he had several brothers as well as a famous father. But what exactly happened to them all—that is the part no one knows. And more’s the shame, that—because the most profound part of the story is precisely its least-well-known part.
Jerusalem was taken in the year 164 BCE, but the fighting continued for years and, indeed, Judah himself died in battle in 160 and was replaced as commander-in-chief of the Jewish army by his brother Jonathan, who at the time was already serving as High Priest. Jonathan was as much a politician as a general or a priest, however…and he made a fair number of enemies by attempting to transform an autonomous Judah within the larger Seleucid empire into a truly independent state by signing treaties with any number of foreign countries. He lasted for almost two decades, but was finally assassinated by someone who apparently found his politics intolerable and was succeeded by his brother Simon, the last of the original Maccabee brothers. The inner politics of the day is interesting enough, but what fascinates me in particular is the way that the Maccabees, who started out only wishing to prevent the Seleucid emperor from disrupting traditional Jewish life, became more and more intoxicated with the power they saw themselves able to seize. Judah was a kind of a general. Jonathan was a general and High Priest. And Simon convened a national synod that formally recognized him as Commander-in-Chief, High Priest, and National Leader. Most important of all, he negotiated a treaty with the Roman Senate that cut the Seleucids out of the action entirely and acknowledged solely the Maccabees as the legitimate rulers of their land.The story only gets bloodier. Simon was murdered in 134 BCE by his son-in-law, a fellow named Ptolemy, and thus became the first Maccabee to be succeeded not by a brother but by his own son, a man known to history as John Hyrcanus. In his day, the war with the Seleucids flared up again. The details are very confusing, but the basic story is simply that the Seleucids took back all of Israel except for Jerusalem itself, then abandoned it all when Antiochus VII died in 129. Indeed, as the Seleucid empire slowly fell apart, John Hyrcanus embarked on a military campaign to seize what he could of the adjacent world. And he was successful too, conquering a dizzying number of neighboring states, in the course of at least one campaign, the one against the Idumeans (the latter-day Edomites), he forced an entire nation to convert to Judaism. Most important of all, he cemented the nation’s relationship with Rome, agreeing to work only in the best interests of the Roman Republic in exchange for their agreement to recognize Judah as a fully independent state. He established relations with Egypt and Athens too, thus making Judah into a real player on the international scene. And then he died in 104 BCE, one of the very few Maccabees to die of natural causes.
His eldest son was Judah Aristobulus. The original plan was for Judah to become high priest and for his mother to become the political leader of the nation. Judah Aristobulus (also sometimes called Aristobulus I) found that irritating, however, so he imprisoned his mother and allowed her to starve to death in jail. Then, for good measure, he also imprisoned all his own siblings but one. (He had that one killed eventually too.) And it was this Judah Aristobulus who, not content with just being High Priest, commander-in-chief, and political leader, also named himself king.It didn’t last. He himself didn’t last—he was sickly to start with and then, after one single year on the throne of Israel, he too died and was replaced by his oldest brother, known to the Jews as King Yannai and to the rest of the world as Alexander Jannaeus.
It’s easy to get confused by the details. I’ve read the part of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews that covers the Maccabean years—the only sustained, detailed narrative covering the entire period—a dozen times. It couldn’t be easier to get lost in the forest amidst so many different trees—and the fact that there are so many different people with the same names only makes it more confusing. But when you step back and look at the larger picture, you see something remarkable…and deeply relevant to our modern world.The Maccabees—known to history more regularly as the Hasmoneans—started out as highly and finely motivated as possible. They had an emperor ruling over them who held their national culture in disdain, so the Maccabees rose up and somehow won a measure of autonomy for their people that most definitely included the right to run their own cult and to pursue their own spiritual agenda. But the power they won on the battlefield corrupted them from within, leading them not only not to act in the nation’s best interests but to cross a truly sacred line when Judah Aristobulus finally broke with the very religious tradition his family came to prominence to protect by declaring himself king.
He wasn’t from the tribe of Judah. (The Maccabees were priests, so of the tribe of Levi.) He wasn’t descended from David. He had no legitimate or even illegitimate claim to the throne. But he took it anyway…and that act of self-aggrandizing sacrilege set the stage within just a few short decades for a massively blood civil war undertaken by two of his nephews who were vying for the crown, which disaster opened the door to the Romans who saw in it an opportunity to occupy Judah and make it part of their empire, which they did in 63 BCE. The next time Jews managed to declare in independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel was in 1948 CE, a cool 2011 years later.It is never a good thing when a nation’s leaders see in public service not a way to contribute to the welfare of the nation but an avenue for self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment, and self-promotion. The Maccabean descendants became wealthy and powerful. They hobnobbed with the delegates from the world’s most important nations, including the world’s sole super-power at the time, the Roman Empire. They reduced even something as innately sacred as the office of High Priest to a mere stepping stone capable of leading to still greater authority. As they became more and more entangled in their own inner-familial struggles, they relied increasingly on generals who themselves had a wide variety of personal agendas to pursue. And then they crossed the line and, in an act of spiritual madness, made themselves the kings of Israel despite the fact that they had no justifiable claim to the crown.
Public service is a burden and a privilege. Our greatest political leaders have always been people who saw that clearly and who allowed themselves to be saddled with the millstone of public office out of a sense of personal honor and deep patriotism. We have had American leaders that like—Abraham Lincoln, I believe, was such a man—and our nation is the richer and better for their service. But the larger story of Chanukah—the one we never tell in Hebrew School—has its own deeply monitory lesson to teach: that greatness in governing is a function always of personal character…and never one of mere opportunity.