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Were the Maccabees Barbarians?

Were the Maccabees Barbarians?



I don’t understand what we are supposed to be celebrating on Chanukah. The Greeks brought culture, rationalism, geometry, drama, appreciation of beauty, and most of all, a promise of universalism to the Mediterranean. The Jewish Maccabee resistance fought for old-time religion, senseless rituals such as circumcision, kosher taboos and sacrificial orders. Where others gladly abandoned their tribalism for the universalist spirit of the day, these retrogrades insisted on their divisive national identity and cultic rites.

In our modern times, when those Hellenist ideals have flowered and flourished in the form of science and globalism, what point is there in celebrating the victory of those who resisted progress into the future?


Let’s start with a few facts. While it’s true that Alexander brought an era of true progress and prosperity to the ancient world, those values weren’t necessarily Greek values. Consider this speech which legend attributes to him—a speech no Greek could have imagined:

. . . I wish all of you, now that the wars are coming to an end, to live happily in peace. All mortals from now on shall live like one people, united and peacefully working forwards a common prosperity. You should regard the whole world as your country—a country where the best govern, with common laws and no racial distinctions. I do not separate people, as many narrow-minded others do, into Greeks and barbarians.

I’m not interested in the origin or race of citizens. I distinguish them only on the basis of their virtue. For me, each good foreigner is a Greek, and each bad Greek is a barbarian. If ever there appear differences among you, you must not resolve them by taking to arms; you should resolve them in peace. If need be, I shall act as your negotiator. You must not think of G‑d as an authoritarian ruler, but you should consider Him as common father, so that your conduct will resemble the uniform behavior of brothers who belong to the same family. For my part, I consider all—whether they be white or black—equal, and I would like you to be not only the subjects of my commonwealth, but also participants and partners. Within my powers, I shall endeavor to fulfill all my promises. You should regard the oath we have taken tonight as a symbol of love . . .1

To the Greeks, anyone who was not a member of a small group of tribes on the tip of the Aegean peninsula was a barbarian and of inferior stock, worthy only to be a slave. And that included Macedonians such as Alexander. Amongst Athenians, only one who owned land and was born of an Athenian father and mother could be considered a citizen. Even craftsmen and entrepreneurs were considered inferior sorts for men, unworthy of citizenship.

True, Alexander was trained by a Greek teacher, none other than Aristotle. Yet, in his biography of Alexander, Peter Green writes:

Aristotle and Alexander maintained a close relationship while student and teacher. Surprisingly, in later years, Aristotle’s and Alexander’s relationship deteriorated because of their opposing views on foreigners. Aristotle regarded foreigners as barbarians, while Alexander did not mind intermixing cultures.2

Alexander and the Hellenistic dream of universal peace was, then, not so much Greek, but much closer to an earlier orator of a much different era, the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of the ultimate Jewish emperor:

He shall judge between the nations and reprove many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.3

Such progressive universalists were the ancient Jews that they alone among the nations fostered a concept not only of universal peace, but of universal law. The code is often called the seven laws of Noah, although it entails far more than seven prohibitions. Adin Steinsaltz, in a widely discussed essay, describes the Noahide approach as “a formula for no more than peace,” providing “a basis for conversation among religions without the expectation of compromise between or reconciliation of claims.”4

All this makes it even more surprising that it was the Jews, far more than any other people, who rebelled against and undermined Alexander’s dream. And to celebrate that, yet?

The key, I believe, was best stated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference. In the chapter “Exorcising Plato’s Ghost,” he describes the flip side of universalism: the obliteration of diversity, the loss of individuality, and the breeding of anomie in the place of community.

The two examples of progress that you cite, science and globalism, are poignant in this regard. The benefits of science and technology are precious to us all, but after the horrors of the 20th century, none of us can ignore its pernicious tendency to dehumanize and devalue human life. Ironically, as science progresses, it becomes better equipped to justify a purely utilitarian world, where humans are reduced to just another utility.

As for globalism—yes, it has defeated the worst of poverty in many parts of the world; brought greater resilience to our economy (so they say); and it’s nice to have avocados, kiwis and passion fruit at any season of the year—but look at what this has done to cultural diversity. In his time, Alexander offered Greek statues and temples for all; today we offer Superman, Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s. With both peace offerings, the same caveat applies: Acceptance of our culture implies abandonment of your own. Whether you are Japanese, Swahili, Inuit or Patagonian, this will be the new pseudo-culture of your children, and your own will be lost. You pay for peace with your own soul.

Oh so poignant are the words of Chief Dan George, of the Suquamish tribe in the Pacific Northwest:

I wanted to give something of my past to my grandson. So I took him into the woods, to a quiet spot . . .

I sang.

In my voice was the hope that clings to every heartbeat.

I sang.

In my words were the powers I inherited from my forefathers.

I sang.

In my cupped hands lay a spruce seed—the link to creation.

I sang.

In my eyes sparkled love.

I sang.

And the song floated on the sun’s rays from tree to tree.

When I had ended, it was if the whole world listened with us to hear the wolf’s reply. We waited a long time but none came.

Again I sang, humbly but as invitingly as I could, until my throat ached and my voice gave out. All of a sudden I realized why no wolves had heard my sacred song. There were none left! My heart filled with tears. I could no longer give my grandson faith in the past, our past.

At last I could whisper to him: “It is finished!”

“Can I go home now?” he asked, checking his watch to see if he would still be in time to catch his favorite program on TV.

I watched him disappear and wept in silence. All is finished!5

So, it is all finished. Who cares? What difference will it make? Humanity can survive without the Squamish legends and myths.

True, we can survive. But in what way will we be human?

As Rabbi Sacks asks, is a human an abstract ideal, a cookie-cutter form, a way in which we are all the same, live the same, celebrate the same, want the same and die the same? Or is a human defined by his unpredictability, his unique sense of “I,” a creature of destiny and purpose that no other being in the universe shares, whose pleasure and pain, sadness and joy describe one individual’s experience of life and one alone?

That is where things went haywire between the Hellenists and the Maccabees: Not over culture and art, geometry and literacy—those we embraced and even preserved, just as we welcomed the promise of peace between nations. It was the caveat that we were not willing to swallow. Our temple was to remain a Jewish temple, our homes Jewish homes, and our Torah a Jewish Torah. The Greeks, and those Jews who mimicked them, saw that as a stubborn impediment to progress. They saw the recalcitrants as shortsighted retrogrades. But the truth is that Jewish wisdom sees much further. The future is not a soliloquy, but a symphony. Peace is not uniformity, but a rich orchestra of many instruments.6

The Jewish people have made many valuable contributions to humankind, but this is one of their most vital: That it is okay to be different, to cherish your identity, even to die for it—because in truth that is all you have. It is all you have, because without it you are redundant: you may as well have never been born. On Chanukah we wish to share that with all other peoples, to show them that even as the majority culture swamps your life with its commercially hyped symbology, narratives and melodies, you can still bear proudly the traditions of your own proud heritage and know who you are. And so we celebrate that victory, the victory of the survival of the unique, the personal and the human within the vast melting pot of globalism.

Look at this miracle: An anomaly among the nations, as time progressed we became not less tribal, but more so. Like an ingot of iron in the crucible of history, our identity became yet more indestructible, yet more timeless and eternal. Timeless, because we belong to modernity as much as we belong to our ancient roots; eternal, because in essence we do not change. Why? Because we were born as a people not out of geography or circumstance, but out of a mission, and that sense of purpose has kept us always alive and unique. And so it should be with every human being: Let his or her unique mission—not that of the sitcom stars, not that dictated by social norms, not that demanded by conformity to modern, Western standards—but the role that distinguishes this one person from every other creature in the universe, let that vitalize all that he or she does.

Earlier I compared the universal law for all people, the laws of Noah, to Alexander’s promise of peace between nations. The distinction, however, is crucial: Alexander asked that “your conduct will resemble the uniform behavior of brothers who belong to the same family.” We would rather have each of those brothers and sisters express his or her uniqueness within that one large family. The minimalism of the laws of Noah serves as a guideline not for conformity, but for harmony of diverse parts.

Perhaps this is what guided Micah, a later prophet, to reiterate the words of Isaiah, yet with an embellished encore, one that speaks to the individual as well as the whole:

He shall judge between many peoples and reprove mighty nations far-off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.

They shall dwell each man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them move, for the mouth of the L‑rd of Hosts has spoken.7

Recently I gave an impromptu talk on this topic, which someone recorded. You can listen to the recording at this link. Another article to read is Why Couldn’t the Jews and Greeks Just Get Along?

May the lights of Chanukah transform the darkness to light, so that we may truly progress into a future in which every human being is valued, and war is unthinkable.


The “oath” of Alexander the Great, a speech at Opis (Assyria) in 324 BCE, to some nine thousand dignitaries and nobles of all nations (Pseudo-Kallisthenes C; cited also by Eratosthenes).

Alexander’s idealism became quickly corrupted as he allowed others to convince him of his divinity. The ideal, nevertheless, remained a key element of the subsequent Hellenistic era.


See Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon 356–323 B.C.: A Historical Biography (reprint edition, University of California Press, 1992), pp. 4 and 89; and summary at Ancient History. Concerning Greek racism, see Michael Bakaoukas, “Tribalism and Racism among the Ancient Greeks, A Weberian Perspective” in Anistoriton Journal 9 (March 2005), section E0501.


Adin Steinsaltz, “Peace Without Conciliation,” Common Knowledge 11 (2005): 1, p. 47.


The Rebbe brings out this point in his discussion of Who Was Korach?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous Flda December 13, 2017

Thank you for the wonderful article. Happy hannukah. Reply

Anonymous florida December 25, 2016

thank you thank you and bless you for your wisdom Reply

Ann Buffalo December 16, 2015

Rabbi Tzvi is excellent and universal, as ever.

In Hanukkah we celebrate the right to be part of the whole, each group in its own way.

Treasure the various cultures

Some say the reason Hanukkah lasts eight days is this: the first time, it was a belated Sukkah celebration (7 days plus Shmini Atzeret). YES to the miracle of the oil lasting eight days--but also YES to reclaiming our celebration of autumn, even though winter had come.

Northern cultures celebrate the lengthening days after solstice, for fear of the cold.

Subtropical cultures celebrate the beginning of the rainy season.

Each celebrates its own link to nature.

GD rules over nature.

The festivals honor local seasons.

For Israel, this means the rainy season.

Right now, with Dec 4 having come and gone, we alter the Amidah (the thrice-daily prayer) to include a prayer for rain so that Israel's crops can grow.

Every culture & every climate has its own intimate customs.

Treasure the variety! Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem December 14, 2015

Aristotle I would just like to add that Aristotle believed in killing new-born babies if they were not formed properly or completely healthy. And how did he suggest to do this? Put them outside in pottery pots to die of starvation and exposure. Reply

Richard Rodriguez Mesquite December 6, 2015

Well written and without to much embellishment yet eloquent. Placed me in the period! Thanks!

Ethan London, Great Britain via December 4, 2013

Thank you Thanks for a beautiful article. Reply

Chaim Colorado November 28, 2013

Barbarians? The real barbarians came much later and hung out at the corner of Broad & Wall streets. Reply

Anonymous USA November 28, 2013

When a group worships its own ideas, such as Hellenism (or Nazism, communism, capitalism, imperialism, etc), it is worshipping a 'thing' (an idol, & inopposition to G-d (b.H.)), the hopelessly impossible attempt to restore Eden without G-d. Globalism was 1st expressed under Nimrod (to haSh-m's displeasure). Nimrod is now a word used derrogatorily for someone supposed to be an idiot. Nimrod's dream resulted in the tribalization of the human race, the opposite of what he had hoped. Alexander's Hellenism destroyed people. So did Assyria's and Babylon's many years earlier, etc. Nazism's version resulted in the deaths of millions, & again divided people. So did communism's. Modern economic globalism is just another attempt. It too will catastrophically fail. Only when Messiah rules will this dream be realized, according to G-d's perfect Torah. The miracle of Chanuka is that G-d spoke: "I haven't forgotten you...but in My time, in My Way." Only then will we realize "and they rested." Reply

Orah Delray, FL November 27, 2013

Beautifully said, Joseph! G-d is love...and G-d loves life! And justice! And freedom!
Thanksgiving and Hanukkah....both about religeous freedom -- breaking free from our oppressors, with a little help from the one above. It's nice to see that our creator favors freedom, for all of his children -- Jewish or not. Reply

Phyllis Los Altos November 27, 2013

A few of the down sides of technology Reality TV is dehumanizing. The drive to own more and more gadgets is dehumanizing. Automobiles are dehumanizing. Much of our technology is dehumanizing.

Modern food, with insect poison added to its DNA, is harmful to many of us. I can no longer eat bread, and so cannot make a motzi, because the wheat is genetically modified in such a way that I get sick from it. Ditto corn. And the wind carries the pollen everywhere. Oh, and the pesticides? The pests are immune to it by now, but we are not. And penicillin? Now that it is given to all the cattle, we have all ingested so much of it that the germs are immune to it and to many other antibiotics.

Globalism? I can't help thinking of our drive for lower prices, which, on the one hand, drives out qualify merchandise, including handcrafted wooden objects, and, on the other hand, produces sweatshop conditions in unsafe buildings in Asia, buildings which collapse and trap their workers. Reply

David K. Utah November 27, 2013

Thank you Rabbi Freeman This is one of the best articles I've read on Chanukah and I'm in full agreement with you on this point. Chanukah is the celebration of the Right to be Different and the rights of the Individual which should the Maccabees fought for and won. A small group against the mightiest army of the time,and they won. Sadly many of us Jews seem to have forgotten our heritage and our history, who we are and how we became a nation. Selling our values to popular ideology of progressive liberalism.

Thank you again for your insight. Reply

Anna Canada November 27, 2013

Thank You Rabbi Rabbi Freeman, this is brilliant. Thank you for applying your gift to writing so superb a piece. Especially appreciated your inclusion of a quote from our dear late Chief Dan George. B'H Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA November 24, 2013

Our Nuclear Family Encourages My Son to Be Unique In our house, pink is not just a color for girls. It is a color, but it is not a girl color or a boy color, it is just a color according to my wife and I. Also, the other day I gave my son a rainbow colored bracelet. It had all the colors of the rainbow in it, in order. My friend was worried, "You can't give that to him. He will be ridiculed." (For some reason folks associate rainbows and gayness, which is terrible to think that gays have a monopoly on rainbows.) To which I had to say, "Every scientist should know the colors of the rainbow in order. I am just trying to get my son to be a step ahead." Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem November 24, 2013

Greek "cultlure"?? The Greeks were a barbarian people. They had no morals or ethics, played their sports naked because they glorified the body, were homosexuals and believed in killing babies that were born with any birth defects. The "great" Aristotle himself advocated throwing these helpless newborns into the bushes to die of starvation and exposure.

Don't believe it? Google "World Perfect" by Ken Spiro. Reply

Anonymous December 8, 2011

Uniqueness I don't get the point of uniqueness is based on following the culture of those around you. I saw no uniqueness in the opinions of a thousand Jews chanting at David's wall. I have seen limited uniqueness in the opinions of Christian Americans in the mod west and I saw little uniqueness and individuality in the opinions of Moslems I met in Mecca. I have seen amazing amounts of individuality in those that challenged the beliefs around them and taken the step to embrace others as warmly as they embrace the people born next door to them.

Alexander continues to show us the way Reply

Jose Muntinlupa , Philippines July 29, 2011

Hellenism is Imperialism As a former Christian and a citizen of a country that was colonized by Spain for over three centuries, Great Britain for several years, by the U.S. for several decades and Japan for several years too, I have given much thought on why a nation lift up swords against another? Nations go to war because they want to extend their culture and religion and also to secure their needed resources. In short they conquer for their empire. And Hellenism is plain imperialism. The same is true with Christianism, Islamism and Communism. In contrast Judaism promotes the idea that each nation can find its way to G-d and its ideals within the basics -- that is the seven laws of Noah -- allowing them to create a civilized society where peace, progress and ethics can truly grow thus enabling man to find his deepest purpose. Judaism is content with keeping itself within the land of Israel, hence against imperialism. Reply

Joseph Niceville, FL June 12, 2011

G-d Gettenberg,
Wow! You really believe the Jews invented G-d? I think G-d created man. He also gave us a mind to think, to reason, and to make choices. We can choose how we want to live our lives. We can live kind, holy, good, forgiving lives. Or we can live angry, bitter, scynical, and pessimistic lives. The choice is yours.
God chose Israel not only for Israel's sake, but for the sake of all mankind. The Torah often states this as a fact.
Man is G-d's masterpiece. We are created in His image--all men, not just jews.
We are a patchwork of bones, stiched together with sinew, bound by muscle, and painted with skin. But that is mere dust. God put a spirit in us, an eternal spirit. It longs to live in eternity with its creator. These things you cannot see. So they require faith.
You should read Ecclessiastes.
We, with our mortal minds, a life of 60 or 70 years, cannot possibly fathom eternity. Love is eternal, and G-d is love. Live by faith not by sight. Reply

Aaron Gettenbrg Johannesburg, S.Africa June 12, 2011

How could you claim Alexander not Greek? Alexander is a Greek name and Macedonia (meaning 'land of tall men-Makedones). Do you really believe that a bunch of Slavs who fairly recently migrated to the Balkans are "Macedonians?" One characteristc of Hellenic culture is that everyone is fee to believe what they choose, not what is imposed by a primitive fixed religious indoctrination. So dont ascribe to Greeks what is convenient to your beliefs and propaganda, and deny what is not. Also I am afraid that the Jews (and the Greeks for that matter) are their own worst enemies, starting from the invention of a "G_d" who made the Jews his 'chosen people'. While the Greeks did believe non Greeks to be barbarians, due to their lack of culture, Jews considered themselves superior to everyone else on the basis of a self created "G_d" who made "His" people the "chosen ones" and gave them the right to "smite" everyone else, kill their 1st sons, rape their works both ways. The war is spiritual one, in which Gr & Jew mere projection Reply

Raziela August 15, 2010

identity i am struggling to express my unique identity within judaism. i used to for eg have my own style of dress, now i need to fit that in to a old fashioned dress sense. not talking about tzniut (modesty), i have no problem with that, talking about style. sounds silly but its really bothering me. Reply

Bob Seoul May 6, 2010

Horrors of the 20th Century? I have to take issue with your view of science and it's "pernicious tendency to dehumanize and devalue human life." Statements like that, espousing "the good old days," show a lack of knowledge of history. Technology improves human life. You may see footage of the horror of IED's or machine guns, read about the lives lost to the atomic bombs, but do you put it in perspective of what those inventions averted? The alternatives before that were longer wars, where men literally tore and hacked each other to pieces. And after the fighting, the victors were in the right to rape and pillage the losers. Now those actions are war crimes. The changes, for the positive, in the conduct of war are connected to the changes in technology. Likewise, it is folly to see globalism as only spreading McDonalds and diluting cultures. It also spreads education, equal rights, the rule of law. Do you really think eariler cultures were pure? They were amalgams of earlier groups. All cultures blend constantly. Reply