The Maccabees: Heroes or Fanatics?

The Maccabees triumphed over the Syrian Greeks and liberated the Temple, but their legacy is not so clear.

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Although the text of Maccabees views Judah as a liberator whose zealotry was necessary to preserve the Torah and the Jewish people, later rabbinic commentators frowned upon such zealotry, realizing the danger of individuals taking the law into their own hands and interpreting it in accord with their own interests. Consequently, normative Jewish law limits "legitimate" zealotry nearly to the point of nonexistence: A zealot is not allowed to act preemptively in expectation of a desecration, nor punitively after the desecration has been completed; if he does so, he is treated as a murderer. Because a zealot is considered to be acting outside the law, the desecrator has the right to kill a zealot in self-defense. In addition, rabbinical courts were forbidden to give permission to zealots to act or to teach zealotry.

In the end, the Maccabees must be judged to be both liberators and zealots. Like many figures in the Bible, these apocryphal heroes are multi-layered, and their meaning is unraveled by successive generations based on their own needs and experiences. In the world today, we may identify with the Maccabean fight to preserve Judaism in the face of assimilation and anti-Semitism, while at the same time working to mitigate religious zealotry that threatens to turn Jew against Jew.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.