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Principles, Consequences, Democracies, and Hanukkah, Too

12/05/2019 11:55:44 AM


Without going too far out on the limb of speculation, the majority of American Jews would prefer Trump impeached and removed from office. On the other side of that same tree, the majority of Israeli Jews would prefer Trump serve a second term.

When the Greek empire held sway in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, the Seleucids of Syria attempted to impose Greek religion on the Jews of Judea. Although some Jews were quite happy to trade Judean particularism for Greek cosmopolitanism, others refused. Those refuseniks, the Maccabees, engaged in such immoral behavior, the Rabbis later
refused to permit their story to enter the canon of our sacred texts.

We think of the Hanukkah war as being waged against the Seleucids, but Mattathias’ first victim was a Jewish neighbor about to sacrifice to a foreign god. Mattathias murdered him in cold blood. The Mishnah explicitly prohibits murdering someone to stop them from engaging in idolatry. Thus, when I charged Mattathias with murder, I was channeling the Rabbis.

Here’s the thing: had Mattathias NOT murdered that Jew and initiated the war against other Hellenizing Jews and the Seleucids, the Rabbis might never have emerged. Judaism would have atrophied to the point of extinction in the name of universalism. But, in the wake of the Maccabean victory, governmental corruption became systemic. Ultimately, 235 years later, the Romans destroyed our seat of power in Jerusalem and ushered in nearly two thousand years of statelessness.

Civil war in Hebrew is milchemet achim, a war between brothers. As we deliberate about the future of American and Israeli democracy, let us not forget the Talmudic lesson of Kamtza, bar Kamtza, and the Temple’s destruction:  do not neglect likely consequences in single-minded pursuit of principle.

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784