The Maccabees are the protagonists of Hanukkah, celebrated every year on 25 Kislev, the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar. They are also the object of fascination for the three twentieth-century artists in this exhibition: Zeev Raban, Yehye Yemini, and Jack Levine, each conveying in their own way the Maccabees’ faith and conviction.
1 Maccabees recounts the events surrounding the Hasmonaean uprising against the anti-Jewish persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Seleucid King and ruler of Judea in the second century BCE. Determined to hellenize the land of Israel, Antiochus outlawed Jewish practice; he turned the Temple of Jerusalem into a place of pagan worship, and, under penalty of death, banned the Torah, circumcision, and the Sabbath (1:41–64).
It is against this backdrop that chapter 2 begins. Although it appears so near the start of Maccabees, this chapter brilliantly encapsulates the entire Hanukkah story: on the one hand, it promotes a strong message of spirituality and on the other it urges war and action. These two aspects are present in chapter 2 as two traits of Mattathias’s personality: the aged priest who lucidly verbalizes his faith in God’s covenant (vv.19–22) abruptly turns into the violent man who gives vent to anger, kills on the altar (v.24), strikes down sinners, and forcibly circumcises boys (vv.44–46).
The three works here seem to oscillate between this very duality. Zeev Raban freezes the scene in the ‘calm before the storm’ moment, that of Mattathias’s firm yet composed defence of his beliefs to King Antiochus’s officials (2:19–22). For Jack Levine, one of the angry social realists in mid-twentieth-century America, the time for conversation is over and his Judas (Mattathias’s son) is ready for battle (3:3–9). With Yehia Yemini’s shimmering silver relief, there is a return to spiritual purity with the cleansing of the desecrated Temple (4:42–51).
And yet these works all seem to express awe and admiration for the Hasmonaeans’ moral standing. For Raban and Yemini, this idealization is part of the wider programme of the Bezalel School of Art in early twentieth-century Jerusalem. As envisioned by its founder Boris Schatz, its teachers and students were to create a Hebrew style in the service of the Zionist vision. The Hasmonaeans, the founders of the last Jewish sovereign state in 2000 years, were the ultimate symbols of Jewish independence.
In this context, the two scenes by Raban and Yemini encouraged a proud Jewish cultural and political identity. Levine seems to have been prompted by more personal motives. His interest in Jewish biblical figures, as well as sages and rabbis, was triggered by the death of his father Samuel. It was shortly after this experience that Levine painted his most celebrated religious painting, King Salomon and Hiram, made to ‘score points with his father’, and celebrating the same Jewish tradition he had once rejected (Baskind 2007: 83).
If Levine stands apart from the two Jerusalem artists in the apolitical use of his Judas Maccabeus, it is Yemini’s piece that, as a ritual object, adds a further dimension. Rather than merely depicting the events, his Hanukkah lamp brings them back to life—the kindling of the eight flames serving as a re-enactment of the lighting of the gold Menorah in the Temple (4:50).
Beyond any differences between these works, what remains is that the Maccabees, officially rejected from the canon of the Hebrew Bible, were the chosen subjects of these three Jewish artists. In their work, they not only legitimized, but also celebrated the Hasmonaeans. Indeed, one might argue, they reinstated them as a worthy and glorious chapter of Jewish history and made a case for treating them as part of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Baskind, Samantha. 2007. ‘Midrash and the Jewish American Experience in Jack Levine's Planning Solomon's Temple’, Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art, 3: 73–90
2 In those days Mattathiʹas the son of John, son of Simʹeon, a priest of the sons of Joʹarib, moved from Jerusalem and settled in Moʹde-in. 2He had five sons, John surnamed Gaddi, 3Simon called Thassi, 4Judas called Maccabeʹus, 5Eleaʹzar called Avʹaran, and Jonathan called Apphus. 6He saw the blasphemies being committed in Judah and Jerusalem, 7and said,
“Alas! Why was I born to see this,
the ruin of my people, the ruin of the holy city,
and to dwell there when it was given over to the enemy,
the sanctuary given over to aliens?
8Her temple has become like a man without honor;
9her glorious vessels have been carried into captivity.
Her babes have been killed in her streets,
her youths by the sword of the foe.
10What nation has not inherited her palaces
and has not seized her spoils?
11All her adornment has been taken away;
no longer free, she has become a slave.
12And behold, our holy place, our beauty,
and our glory have been laid waste;
the Gentiles have profaned it.
13Why should we live any longer?”
14 And Mattathiʹas and his sons rent their clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned greatly.
15 Then the king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the city of Moʹde-in to make them offer sacrifice. 16Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathiʹas and his sons were assembled. 17Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathiʹas as follows: “You are a leader, honored and great in this city, and supported by sons and brothers. 18Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the men of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.”
19 But Mattathiʹas answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, 20yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers. 21Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. 22We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”
23 When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Moʹde-in, according to the king’s command. 24When Mattathiʹas saw it, be burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him upon the altar. 25At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. 26Thus he burned with zeal for the law, as Phinʹehas did against Zimri the son of Salu.
27 Then Mattathiʹas cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!” 28And he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the city.
29 Then many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to dwell there, 30they, their sons, their wives, and their cattle, because evils pressed heavily upon them. 31And it was reported to the king’s officers, and to the troops in Jerusalem the city of David, that men who had rejected the king’s command had gone down to the hiding places in the wilderness. 32Many pursued them, and overtook them; they encamped opposite them and prepared for battle against them on the sabbath day. 33And they said to them, “Enough of this! Come out and do what the king commands, and you will live.” 34But they said, “We will not come out, nor will we do what the king commands and so profane the sabbath day.” 35Then the enemy hastened to attack them. 36But they did not answer them or hurl a stone at them or block up their hiding places, 37for they said, “Let us all die in our innocence; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly.” 38So they attacked them on the sabbath, and they died, with their wives and children and cattle, to the number of a thousand persons.
39 When Mattathiʹas and his friends learned of it, they mourned for them deeply. 40And each said to his neighbor: “If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” 41So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.”
42 Then there united with them a company of Hasideʹans, mighty warriors of Israel, every one who offered himself willingly for the law. 43And all who became fugitives to escape their troubles joined them and reinforced them. 44They organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger and lawless men in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. 45And Mattathiʹas and his friends went about and tore down the altars; 46they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel. 47They hunted down the arrogant men, and the work prospered in their hands. 48They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand.
49 Now the days drew near for Mattathiʹas to die, and he said to his sons: “Arrogance and reproach have now become strong; it is a time of ruin and furious anger. 50Now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our fathers.
51 “Remember the deeds of the fathers, which they did in their generations; and receive great honor and an everlasting name. 52Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness? 53Joseph in the time of his distress kept the commandment, and became lord of Egypt. 54Phinʹehas our father, because he was deeply zealous, received the covenant of everlasting priesthood. 55Joshua, because he fulfilled the command, became a judge in Israel. 56Caleb, because he testified in the assembly, received an inheritance in the land. 57David, because he was merciful, inherited the throne of the kingdom for ever. 58Eliʹjah because of great zeal for the law was taken up into heaven. 59Hananiʹah, Azariʹah, and Mishʹa-el believed and were saved from the flame. 60Daniel because of his innocence was delivered from the mouth of the lions.
61 “And so observe, from generation to generation, that none who put their trust in him will lack strength. 62Do not fear the words of a sinner, for his splendor will turn into dung and worms. 63Today he will be exalted, but tomorrow he will not be found, because he has returned to the dust, and his plans will perish. 64My children, be courageous and grow strong in the law, for by it you will gain honor.
65 “Now behold, I know that Simʹeon your brother is wise in counsel; always listen to him; he shall be your father. 66Judas Maccabeʹus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. 67You shall rally about you all who observe the law, and avenge the wrong done to your people. 68Pay back the Gentiles in full, and heed what the law commands.”
69 Then he blessed them, and was gathered to his fathers. 70He died in the one hundred and forty-sixth year and was buried in the tomb of his fathers at Moʹde-in. And all Israel mourned for him with great lamentation.