What religious story most resonates with the spirit of the American Revolution? Yes, there are many stories in many religions that people overcoming atrocities and oppression. But consider for just a moment the story of Judah Maccabee.
In the late 6th century BCE, the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great let the Jews go home after decades of exile in Babylon and turned Judea into a semi-autonomous theocracy. Judea’s semi-autonomy would continue for centuries despite conquests by Alexander the Great, Egypt’s Ptolemaic Kingdom, and the Seleucid Empire. In fact, the people of Judea seen by most of these emperors as model citizens, contributing to the economic and military might of the nation.
In 175 BCE, however, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended to the throne of the Seleucid Empire. Wanting to unite the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms into one superpower, Antiochus needed money. (sound familiar?) Antiochus plundered the wealth of Judea, he took treasures from the Temple and led his army to Egypt to achieve what his father had not. Needing to subdue and control this highway between his armies in Egypt and the greater empire to the north, Antiochus appointed a royal governor, Menelaus, who led a reign of terror and set out to Hellenize the Jews. A statue of Zeus was placed in the Holy of Holies, desecrating the Temple.
Many pious Jews resisted Menelaus’ measures, some by martyrdom, others by escaping into the wilderness, and still others by active revolt. Most prominent of these rebels was the group led by Mattathias of Modiin and his five sons – of whom Judas Maccabeus proved to be the most able and drew the rest of the Jewish rebels into his camp. Judas and his band of rebels staged guerrilla warfare against Hellenized Jews; Menelaus in response summoned the Greek armies from neighboring Seleucid provinces.
Now, the Maccabees ultimately lost their rebellion and were crushed. But consider for a second how George Washington would have responded to having been told this story by one of his Polish Soldiers, Michael Hart, at Valley Forge. A decent number of Jewish soldiers fought in the revolution with the Continental Army and one company from Rhode Island was encamped along the ridge at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. On an evening ride, General Washington was intrigued by a private’s odd-looking candlestick. Upon questioning the private, Washington was told the story of Chanukah by Private Hart and immediately saw the parallels in the two rebellions. Two ragtag armies, engaged in a desperate struggle with massively superior empires, all over issues of how to properly treat formerly loyal citizens of that empire. Following the war, General Washington paid a visit to the Hart Family in Newport and is rumored to have participated in the family observance and even gave the children a few silver coins…
Popular culture wants to paint early America as this land of Christian religious separatist. We celebrate the Puritans escape from religious intolerance in England, but they were not the only religious exiles to find homes in the New World. In 1492, Spain expelled all her Jews, many fled to the Netherlands and then to New Amsterdam (now New York), still others fled to the Caribbean, including a few who would become notorious pirates. Religious Americans who valued their ability to worship in the manner they felt appropriate soon found that tolerating others who shared this need gave them strength. Yes, there was antisemitism in Colonial America, but it was limited and largely quashed lest it find roots in the anti-Quakerism, anti-Calvinism, and other hate that forced people to flee Europe. In a world much more religious than today, we were stronger for our differences.
Early colonial America was not exclusively the domain of Christians. We know that literally thousands of immigrants from Europe carried a vast assortment of religious practices with them to the New World. Jews held a devotion to the ideals of the American Revolution. Many of them embraced John Winthrop’s preaching that America was to be “a city on a hill.” For them, America’s quest for independence was reminiscent of David’s quest to establish Jerusalem.
So this year, as you light your Menorah, or visit a friend who lights one, consider the context of the story has on the American Revolution. In this season, we celebrate our religious freedom by remembering the Jews of the Maccabean revolt and of the rededication of the Jewish temple. Help our non-Jewish friends to see how this revolutionary revolt fits in the American cause for independence and battle cries of Jewish soldiers at Trenton and Valley Forge.