“Many do not know / That their enemy is marching at their head”: Thoughts on the Maccabees and Assimilation

People sometimes say that Hannukah celebrates the fight against “assimilation,” or against “Hellenism.” When you read 1 Maccabees, you get a somewhat different picture. Certainly, Judah and his brothers opposed the import of certain Greek practices and the suppression of Jewish sacrifices, holiday observances, and circumcision. But they were also committed to a “Hellenization” project of their own. This is primarily a state-making project, which involves, for instance, abrogating traditional Judean rules that impede the formation of an army (e.g., scruples about fighting on shabbat). It also involves positive diplomatic relations with non-Seleucid foreign powers, and, most notably, a glowing description of the politics and culture of Rome.

The most dramatic, and the strangest, example of this point is the family tomb Simon builds near the end of the book:

“Simon erected over the tomb of his father and his brothers a monument of stones, polished front and back, and raised high enough to be seen at a distance. He set up seven pyramids facing one another for his father and his mother and his four brothers. For the pyramids he devised a setting of massive columns, which he adorned with suits of armor as a perpetual memorial, and next to the armor carved ships, which could be seen by all who sailed the sea. This tomb which he built at Modein is there to the present day” (Chapter 13)

The tomb imitates foreign cultures, especially Seleucid and Ptolemaic Greece, in its “pyramids” and “columns.” This is not merely “cultural” Hellenization; the point of the carved ships, almost all commentaries suggest, is that Simon is hoping that Judea too will become a maritime empire, like its neighbors. The tomb is thus the monumental expression of a desire to remake the Judean polity into an expansionist, colonizing (in the ancient sense!) state.

Moreover, right before he builds this tomb, “Simon sent for the bones of his brother Jonathan”—alluding, I think, to the motif of taking Jacob’s (and later Joseph’s) bones out of Egypt to bury them in Canaan. Now, Genesis 50 is one of the most remarkable scenes of cultural assimilation in the Hebrew Bible. Jacob is embalmed, transported with Pharoah’s royal entourage, and then mourned by the Egyptians (so that the Canaanite onlookers seem to think he is Egyptian!). I think it’s fairly plausible the author of 1 Maccabees is aware of this point; he is intentionally recreating a scene of acculturation to a powerful, wealthy foreign country—even though, of course, the assimilation in question also will culminate, he hopes, in the military defeat of that rival. (In a biting, tragic irony, the Hasmoneans eventually ape their oppressors to such an extent that under John Hyrcanus, they imitate the suppression of local practices and imposition of foreign, colonizing norms—forcing circumcision on the conquered Idumeans.)

Thus, the author of 1 Maccabees is against certain types of “Hellenizing,” and in favor of others. When discussing “assimilation” and Hannukah, we often forget the Hasmonean state-building and monument-making projects—perhaps because in a modern, Diasporic, Protestant context like America, we tend to think about issues of religious difference and acculturation in terms of private, individual ritual practices. But, of course, political, military, and architectural forms also pass between cultures, and particularly from the powerful to their weaker neighbors.

As it turns out, people speaking Hebrew, performing traditional Jewish rituals punctiliously, and proudly proclaiming their political freedom from foreign rulers can nonetheless be “assimilationist,” in the sense of adopting non-Jewish political norms; jettisoning inconveniently pacific portions of Jewish culture; and remaking Jewish culture around a militaristic, colonizing state. One must be be very careful in assessing who exactly is cleaving to the internal tradition, and who is remaking it in an alien, imported shape. That, at least, is a message of 1 Maccabees I think that continues to have some use in our present moment.

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