Chanukah 2011 Address: What Doomed the Hasmoneans?

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Hasmonean Coin

In case you are wondering what I said at the Chanukah party, wonder no more. You can listen to my 20+ minute address right here on the blog. Just click the play button at the bottom of this post.

I spoke about the fatal flaw that doomed the Hasmonean dynasty. I think the approach is novel. I have never seen or heard anything that provides this particular perspective and I hope you find the idea I propose thought provoking.

Agree or disagree, I always enjoy hearing your thoughts.

It was a great party, stay tuned for photos in a later post.

You can also subscribe to all classes in iTunes 

  • Anonymous

    There is simply no evidence to suggest that a significant
    number of Jews successfully combined Hellenism and Torah into a worldview at
    once universalist and pious.  The Rabbis
    deemphasized the contribution of the Hasmoniam to the Chanukah story not
    because the latter was incapable of reconciling themselves to modernity but
    because the religious authorities did not want to risk linking Torah observance
    with militant and mercenary nationalism.


    Likewise, you suggestion that the Talmud’s favorable opinion
    of the Greek language, a prevailing familiarity with the natural sciences and
    Yehudah HaNasi’s friendship with Antoninus, all point to a religious
    sensibility comfortably integrated with modernity. Nothing could be further
    from the truth.


    While it is true that tractate Megillah (9a) speaks
    favorably of the Greek language, a clear distinction is made in tractate Sotah
    (49b) between Greek language and Greek wisdom. 
    This distinction is elaborated on in Bava Kamma (82b) where it is
    reported that the Rabbis cursed any man who tought his son Greek wisdom.  In further discussion (83a), it is reported
    in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel that ‘a thousand young men were in the
    household of my father.  Five hundred
    studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.’  The discrepancy is resolved by acknowledging
    that Rabban Gamliel’s household was different as its members were close to the
    Roman monarchy, necessitating their familiarity with Greek wisdom.  This also explains R’ Yehudah HaNasi’s
    intimacy with the same subject – it was a consequence of political necessity
    and not intrinsic to Torah values.  The
    same can be said for the Rabbi’s knowledge of mathematics and the natural
    sciences. Absent such knowledge, many basic institutions of Jewish life, the
    calendar, to site one obvious example, would be impossible.


    If further evidence is wanting that the Rabbi’s wrote the
    Hasmoneans out of the Chanukah story not because they lacked a spirit of
    modernity but because they represented an uncompromisingly brutal and
    reactionary spirit within Judaism, it can be found in the educational system
    that pious Jews established from the end of the second century BCE.  The Greek gymnasia (the forerunner to the
    modern university) was replaced with a network of religious institutions whose curriculum
    rejected any secular influence in favor of a syllabus devoted entirely to
    religious study. 


    While typical of your style, your presentation was original,
    succinct and refreshingly lacking in sentimental appeal, I felt your remarks
    were intended to provoke rather then instruct. 
    It that regard, you succeeded splendidly.     

    • Thanks for commenting.

      > Your supposition as to why the rabbis deemphasized the victory of the chasmonaim is just as much conjecture as mine is.
      > The gemara you refer to is not as simple as you presume. See this excellent article for a different perspective:

      > My remarks, as always, were intending to encourage critical thinking. I hope I have succeeded in that.

      • Anonymous

        Rabbi Fink,


        First, I owe you an apology.   In the valediction to my previous post I
        meant to associate the qualities of originality, succinctness and a lack of
        sentimentality with your general comportment. 
        Instead, it read as a criticism, describing your approach as one that
        sought to provoke rather then instruct. 
        This was not my intention. 

        My objection to your address concerned  your distinction between
        the Rabbis of the second century BCE (and those of the Mishnah and Talmud) and
        the Hasmonians.  In contrasting

        the Rabbis’ flexibility and adaptability in their response to
        Hellenism with the rigid, unyielding fundamentalism of the Hasmonians,  you gave every indication that the  former possessed sensibilities that were not
        dissimilar to those of Yeshiva
        University and that the
        latter could have found a comfortable home among today’s Chasidim.

        Your repeated description of the Rabbis’ ability to adapt to
        the challenges of modernity and to successfully integrate their Judaism with
        the highest ideals of philosophy, science and art, suggests something more then
        simply making practical accommodations with the surrounding culture.   That among the Rabbis were astute men of business,
        diplomacy and science goes without saying. 
        That the Rabbis were cosmopolitans in the tradition of Philo, is another
        matter entirely.

        You prefaced your remarks by stating that you were going to
        present an idea not generally discussed; a novel insight that would give a new
        context to the Chanakah story. One would expect that such a radical departure
        from accepted fact would be supported by new evidence.  You offered none.  The only evidence you cited were Yehudah
        HaNasi’s exchanges with Antoninus and the Talmud’s favorable opinion of the
        Greek language.

        It is worth noting that in the many dialogues the Talmud
        reports between Yehudah HaNasi and Antoninus, Yehudah HaNasi always emerges
        victories by using Torah knowledge and not Greek philosophy.  Far from being an example of Rebbe’s
        integrating Hellenism and Judaism, these dialogs are a clear suggestion of the inferiority
        of Greek thought and suggest that a Jew can be a skilled diplomat without
        compromising his faith.  In fact, nowhere
        in the Talmud is there an explicit example of the accepting attitude toward
        modernity that you ascribe to the Rabbis.  Search in Pirkei Avos for some small hint of a cosmopolitan ideal and you
        will search in vein. Examine the syllabus of Jewish education as it progressed
        through the period of Hellenization and you find a curriculum that becomes increasingly more Torah centered, not less.

        In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that the Rabbis’
        contact with Hellenism produced anything other then practical accommodation and
        application.  The Rabbis encounter with Greek culture cannot be described by the enlightened categories of 19th &
        20th century thought. Likewise, contemporary attitudes towards modernity
        do not have their antecedents in the tensions between the Rabbis and the
        Hasmonians which, if anything, is a cautionary tale about the dangers of
        ignoring religious precedent and not, as you suggest, about the dangers of ignoring
        the forces of modernity.