I. History’s Different Views
History has many facets, making the past appear different based on the angle of one’s purview. The events you highlight and the motivations you emphasize tell as much about you as it does about the past. Who were the Hasmoneans? What were their battles and victories about? The current unrest in Egypt brings these questions into focus.
In a recently translated book, The Sages: The Second Temple Period; Character, Context & Creativity, R. Binyamin Lau interprets Pirkei Avos based on the contemporary history of its teachers. Many of his explanations weave together history and homiletics, along with the occasional differentiation between talmudic layers that makes me so uncomfortable, but his passion and enthusiasm are contagious.
R. Lau’s main approach to history is based on that of R. Aharon Hyman in his Toldos Tanna’in Ve-Amora’im. He bases his history on talmudic and midrashic literature, critically choosing texts and incorporating outside background but all the time aware of, and footnoting, relevant academic discussions. Based on this history, R. Lau interprets saying of the sages in terms of historical trends in their times which often, sometimes too conveniently, yield timely messages for today’s societal dilemmas.
II. Who Were The Hasmoneans?
Regarding the Hasmoneans, R. Lau (pp. 163-168) posits differing worldviews between the authors of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. The former saw the Hasmoneans as waging a political war, emphasizing the military aspects of the rebellion. The latter portrayed the Hasmoneans as fighting a spiritual war, a fight for religious freedom. Which were they — freedom fighters or religious warriors? It’s all a matter of perspective. As R. Lau points out, Jews in recent history emphasized the religious aspect until Zionists chose the political narrative, removing God from the story and focusing on the Hasmoneans’ military bravery and political success.
III. Egypt and Peace
While the political future of Egypt’s President remains in the balance, his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, is experiencing a revival of sorts with the publication of his correspondence with Menachem Begin. The recently published Peace in the Making: The Menachem Begin-Anwar El Sadat Personal Correspondence, edited by Harry Hurwitz and Yisrael Medad, reveals the public and private discussions that led these two opposing leaders down the path of peace together. Combining helpful historical background, related speeches, historical pictures and personal letters, this volume offers us an inside look at these leaders who changed history.
Most interesting to me is the rhetoric each uses in argumentation, particularly Begin’s language. Begin was the most religiously traditional prime minister in Israel’s short history. His rhetoric blended the language of his religious upbringing (in the town of Brisk), Zionist Revisionist (Jabotinsky) ideology and international diplomacy. Representing the Zionist aspect is his usage of the Maccabees.
IV. Maccabees and Political Rhetoric
For example, in a Nov. 11, 1977 radio broadcast to the Egyptian people encouraging Sadat to visit Israel, Begin stated: “We, the Israelis, stretch out out hand to you. It is not, as you know, a weak hand. If attacked, we shall always defend ourselves, as our forefathers, the Maccabees, did — and won the day.” (p. 8)
And in his introduction, Yehuda Avner writes of a first draft of a letter in which Begin wrote: “We hate war and yearn for peace. But let me say this: should anybody at any time raise against us a modern sword in the attempt to rob us of Jerusalem, our capital, the object of our love and prayers, we Jews will fight for Jerusalem as we have never done since the days of the Maccabees. And how Judah Maccabee fought and won the day, every student of history and strategy knows.” (pp. xix-xx)
These are the Maccabees who were political rebels, fierce warriors and shrewd strategists. But this is a matter of emphasis rather than fact. Religious zealots, defenders of the faith, can also serve as exemplary soldiers. It is all a matter of what you want to highlight given your interests and the context of your presentation. Begin, speaking as a politician and former soldier, described Maccabean soldiers fighting for political independence. Had he taken a different path in his hometown of Brisk, he may have focused more on the Maccabean scholars and religious revivalists. Both stories are true in the complex history of Israel.