Making History

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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.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. >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.<

    Interestingly enough, Begin's father was an active Zionist in Brisk at the time when R' Chaim was the Rav there. When Herzl past away, he wanted to hold a memorial service for him at one of the shuls. R' Chaim forbade it – and went to the extent of bolting the door to the shul so that no one could get in on the day of the memorial service. Begin's father took an axe and broke the door and the memorial service went on as scheduled.

    Ahh, the good old days of the shtetle. ;P

  2. Well, history (and God, if you believe in Him) certainly settled that argument, eh?

  3. An interesting note, by the way:

    1 Maccabees was written in Israel, in Hebrew. 2 Maccabees was written in Libya, in Greek. Interestingly, it’s the former that’s nationalistic and the latter religious, as you note. History doesn’t change.

  4. More and more I think historians read texts not so much for what they tell us about the text’s subjects, but for what they tell us about the worldview of the composers. In part this is for the reasons discussed in this post; it’s not that one text or the other is necessarily inaccurate, it’s just that interpreting events always involves a perspective that needs to be disentangled from reality – a very difficult task. Far from invalidating the practice of history, or demonstrating its futility, Gil’s points serve as the basis for much of the modern historian’s trade.

    Of course, in cases like this (the Hasmoneans, for instance), you get different reactions, as Gil said. Some tend to always assume that one narrative is naturally the right one – in this case, some assume it either MUST have been a political movement, or it MUST have been a religious movement. Sometimes (not always, but often, in my view) these judgments are colored by external biases that have nothing to do with the evidence.

    Either way, I think really good historians will acknowledge the great complexity of the situation – even while trying to glean as much information as possible from the available sources.

  5. Jerry:

    When citing Talmudic stories, R’ Lau will admit that that’s exactly what he’s doing- looking into the mindset of the author rather than what actually happened. In fact, to kick off last summer’s series, the first lecture was delivered by Prof. Gafni of Hebrew U., pointing out that you can’t necessarily rely on Chazal for history even of their own period, let alone earlier ones. R’ Lau said Gafni will write the introduction to volume four (Amorei Eretz Yisrael). 🙂

    The Books of Maccabees, on the other hand, were written at the time of the events, or right afterward, so I’d think they’re a bit different. Still, the different points of view do indicate something similar.

  6. Begin also told Sadat that the Jews built the pyramids, so he’s not exactly what we’d call a particularly historical person.

  7. “along with the occasional differentiation between talmudic layers that makes me so uncomfortable”

    What does that mean?

  8. Atg: It means he interprets a Tannaitic story quoted in the Talmud as implying one thing and then an Amoraic gloss to that story which changes the meaning. In other words, he disagrees with the Amoraic interpretation of the Tannaitic story. I think he only does it once or twice but it makes me extremely uncomfortable. I don’t believe in what Prof. Saul Lieberman called performing surgery on the Talmud.

  9. Whuh? Isn’t that poshut?? I thought the idea that the amoraim are just “explaining” the tannaim is well-known as a useful myth.

  10. Atg: One of the wonderful aspects of the internet is that people with different backgrounds and experiences can easily communicate. What may be pashut in your experience is unacceptable in mine.

  11. If you say so.

  12. Nachum: “The Books of Maccabees, on the other hand, were written at the time of the events, or right afterward, so I’d think they’re a bit different. Still, the different points of view do indicate something similar.”

    As per usual: maskim!

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that the characterization of 1 Maccabees as “political” rather than “religious” is unclear and cries out for definition. For instance, 1 Maccabees in a number of well-known instances is known to portray the Maccabees themselves as fulfilling Biblical prophecies, or conforming to Biblical narratives. In some cases commentators on 1 Maccabees have noted that the author may have exaggerated (or, according to some, invented – this seems to me to be a matter of perspective) events in order to pattern the Maccabees more closely after Biblical prophecies/narratives. An example is Simon’s supposed conquest-yet-non-conquest of Galilee (“Galilee of the Gentiles”!) in 1 Maccabees 5.

    Question: is this impulse “political,” “religious,” a little of both, neither? I think this is an interesting question that shows just how complicated this time period is.

  13. nachum 5:20
    History still hasn’t proved it.

  14. And God surely not.

  15. Fotheringay-Phipps

    I haven’t read this work by R’ Lau, but a pioneering work of this sort (loosely) was written by R’ Yehoshua Heschel Levin, SIL of R’ Yitzchok of Volhozhin’s son, (& onetime rival to the Netziv). It’s printed in some editions of Nefesh Hachayim.

    I was once told that Begin’s father was irreligious, and whatever traditionalism Begin had was stuff he came by himself, not “his religious upbringing”. But this could be wrong.

    [I believe RD Soloveitchik has claimed that Begin’s father was “the first mechallel Shabbos in Brisk”. Also that in Brisk in those days, there was a swimming location that had mixed swimming and a location which alternated between men’s days and women’s days. On the men’s days, Begin swam with the men. “I don’t kow what he did on the other days”.]

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