Greeks, Maccabees, and Romans: Who owns Jerusalem?

When the Maccabees won their battle and rededicated the temple, they declared a moral victory. Not only had they defeated the Greek tyrant Antiochus and his armies, they defeated the despair and powerlessness that had overcome many Jews. The courageous Maccabees lit up the temple eternal lights once again, strengthening the Jewish people’s resolve to practice their religion freely, and overpowering the darkness of oppression. That is the lesson of Hanukkah that I believe is most relevant to our lives today.

Jewish liturgy on Hanukkah gives thanks for the miracles. Al Hanisim (“For the miracles,” the prayer recited 3 times a day on Hanukkah, as well as in the grace after meals), expresses gratitude for the  victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, the just over the wicked, and those immersed in the teachings of Torah over the brutal immorality of a dictator.

We approach the coming Hanukkah festival wondering who exactly are the Maccabees today?

Are we Jews the powerful or the powerless? Are we fighting for freedom or for our self-interest? Are we acting from our values, arising from Torah, or from some other source?

In the early years of modern-day Israel, the Maccabees were appropriated as a symbol of the State of Israel, small, righteous, and unfortified, and surrounded by enemies on all sides. Can the current Israeli government lay claim to being modern-day Maccabees?

In historical context, this government may well inherit the legacy of the Maccabees. The Maccabees established the Hasmonean dynasty, who ruled Judea for almost a hundred years. The Hasmoneans themselves became Hellenized rulers. They threw off the norms of Jewish law and took on the honors and symbolism of Greek rulers. And their worst miscalculation, according to the Rabbis of the Talmud who refused to mention the Maccabees in conjunction with the celebration of Hanukkah, was inviting the powerful Roman Empire to become their allies.

While Rome was happy to assist the small country of Judea in its ongoing battles with the Greek armies, they were even happier to colonize Judea. Within a hundred and fifty years, that same Roman Empire destroyed the (renovated) Temple, burned the city of Jerusalem, and exiled the survivors into the Diaspora. Judaism, and the Jewish people, were never the same.

I believe that most people believe that they are Maccabees, standing up for justice, overturning powerful dictators, defending our most cherished values and practices. Nevertheless, Jewish leaders are no more immune to corruption or the temptations of power than leaders from any other moral tradition.

Israel has the most powerful army in the Middle East. Israel has benefited from sharing responsibility for its own security with the Palestinian security forces. For the current government of Israel to welcome the support of a tyrant in order to consolidate its own hold on power is to welcome the Romans once again with open arms.

To declare Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel benefits no one, outside of the current prime minister of Israel. A more thoughtful, strategic, and potentially constructive move would be to declare West Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel (which it is, in practice), and to simultaneously acknowledge East Jerusalem as the long-term legal home of close to half a million Palestinians (as it is, in practice). Just as Jerusalem is the historic holy site for the Jewish world, Jerusalem is likewise one of the most holy sites for the Muslim world. Jerusalem can only survive if it exists as a shared society.

I love Jerusalem. In total, I’ve lived in its neighborhoods and walked its many streets for three years plus. Our son was born in Jerusalem, and his American passport only lists the city, and not the country of Israel, as his birthplace. I take seriously the practice of turning toward Jerusalem in my daily prayers. Jerusalem is central to Jewish life.

However, more important than claiming the city of Jerusalem as a political birthright, Jews should be claiming peace as our ultimate dream.

Ir shalem, the city of peace, Jerusalem’s predecessor, is first mentioned in the Torah as the province of Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest who welcomed Abraham with bread and wine and blessing (Genesis 14:18-19). It is time that the Jewish people, wherever we reside, offer welcome and blessing to our Muslim and Christian neighbors.

To welcome Rome into Jerusalem is to spell our physical and spiritual doom.

Looking for light in these dark times, I wish you and yours the joys of family, gratitude, and generosity this Hanukkah.

Hag urim same’ach (Happy festival of lights),

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on December 6, 2017 .