Were the Maccabees religious fanatics?

Director of secular yeshiva relates: Matityahu can be seen as a fanatic rebel - like ISIS - and how to grapple with that as an educator.

Shimon Cohen ,

Hanukkah (illustrative)
Hanukkah (illustrative)

The central Hanukkah figure of Matityahu the Maccabee was the religious extremist rebel of his day, the head of the Bina secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv reflected in a special interview with Arutz Sheva Tuesday. 

Bina director Eran Baruch clarified at the outset that his view of Matityahu does not reflect the secular yeshiva or Torah study movement, nor the view of the staff of Bina itself. 

Baruch explained that, in his youth, he saw Matityahu as the ultimate Israeli independence fighter of his day, similar to the Palmach fighters during the War of Independence. 

However, after reflecting on a passage about Hanukkah in Shai Agnon's book Tmol Shilshom in which a former haredi man running a coffee house in Yafo converses with Professor Boris Shatz, one of the founders of the Betzalel art school. The two discuss a statue of Matityahu that had been built in the city with a sword in his hand; but as the author reflects, Matityahu was fighting for religion as much, or more, than for the right of Jewish rule - so would Matityahu have killed everyone present for their secular leanings? 

As such, Baruch views Matityahu as part of the "ISIS of his day," as he put it - a firm, rigid man who killed all who offered sacrifices to Zeus and killed the messengers from the Greeks, then called for an open revolt. He notes that such an image raises questions about what the current message is for this generation. 

Practically, he said, educators teach - as they should - the positive aspects of the Hanukkah story: the drive to defend and rebuild a Jewish, independent Israel, and the lessons which they impart about perseverance today.

As an Israeli educator, he said, the mission is to find elements of such holidays as Hanukkah and Tu B'shvat and separate from them their good and bad points in the context of a Jewish and democratic society. 

However, he rejected the idea of then relating to Greek tyrant Antiochus as a figure representing the importance of democracy and rule of law - noting that Antiochus, unlike the Maccabees, was not Jewish and is therefore not a crucial part of the Hanukkah story or Jewish history. 

Baruch concluded by reflecting on the positive values in Matityahu - a figure whom, from a certain secular perspective, was an aggressive religious fanatic. 

"One of the strongest traits of Matityahu and his sons is the desire for freedom and the desire to continue the tradition of their fathers and the courage to recognize the ability of a small country to oppose the Empire," he said. "These are important and interesting elements."

"Even the preparations for and declaring of war are interesting things that live in the memory of the people."