Was Yehudah HaMaccabee A Fanatic

An Interview with Rav Shlomo Aviner

By Tzvi Fishman

With Hanukah approaching, The Jewish Press visited Rosh Yeshiva HaRav Shlomo Aviner at the Ateret Yerushalyim Yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, located in the building which housed the famed Torat Haim Yeshiva until 1936, when Arab pogroms, and the British Mandate Authority, forced the Jews to abandon the once-thriving Jewish neighborhood, then known as the Western Wall Quarter. HaRav Aviner handed me a booklet filled with old photographs which pictured the history of the yeshiva, whose Beit Midrash looks exactly the same as its photo from 80 years ago. At the time of the expulsion, the Arab caretaker of the building locked the doors of the yeshiva, claiming the building was his, thus preventing rioters and plunderers from entering. During Israel’s War of Independence, Jordan captured the Old City. Then a miracle occurred. The Jordanians destroyed all of the 80 yeshivas and synagogues in what they renamed the Muslim Quarter. Only the Torat Chaim building and its study hall and holy tomes remained untouched - like the small flask of oil discovered by the Maccabees in the Beit HaMikdash with the seal of the Kohen HaGadol still intact. When Tzahal liberated the Old City in 1967, the caretaker handed over the key to the building, declaring that the holy place watched over him more than he watched over it.
While many former Jewish buildings in the neighborhood have been reclaimed and populated by young, idealistic Jewish families, the quarter is still overwhelmingly Muslim, with Arab shops lining the casbah which leads to the yeshiva, situated on Hagai Street between Shechem Gate and the Kotel Plaza. Memorial plaques along the narrow, cobblestone alleyway mark the sites where terrorists murdered Eliahu Amedi, Elchanan Aleli, Aharon Bennet, and Rabbi Nechemia Levi, HY”D.      
From the roof of the yeshiva building, it seems like you could reach out and lift off the golden dome from the Shrine of the Rock on the Temple Mount, which the Maccabees reclaimed from the occupying armies of the Greek-Syrian Empire. Visiting the yeshiva, you can feel the valor of its students, who dedicate themselves day and night to learning Torah in the midst of a hostile Arab neighborhood.
Very often, the Israeli media portrays the yeshiva’s students, and the Jews who live in the Muslim Quarter, as fanatics and messianic dreamers who incite the wrath of the Gentiles against us.
“At the time of the Maccabees’ war against the rule of Greece in the Land, that is how most of the Jews regarded Yehuda. At the beginning of the rebellion, only a handful followed him. In the battle against Lisius, he had mustered an army of ten thousand, but by the fourth encounter with the legions of Greece, only four-thousand men stood by him in the vital fight for religious freedom and national sovereignty. The vast majority of Jews were against him. They scoffed at the possibility that a tiny force of untrained and poorly armed farmers from Judea could overcome the mighty armies of Greece. They called Yehuda a fanatic and messianic dreamer, who endangered the security of the Nation, just like the epithets we hear today in the secular media regarding the settlers in East Jerusalem and Yesha. But the truth is the very opposite – Yehuda the Maccabee was a realist.”
A realist? In what way?
“He was as aware of the reality of the precarious situation just like everyone else. Even his own soldiers warned him of the seemingly insurmountable dangers, as the account in the “Sefer HaShmoniim” relates. But Yehuda’s more enlightened perspective encompassed generations. He reminded his troops that if Jewish history had followed the path of the pragmatists, Am Yisrael would never have left Egypt, David would never had killed Goliath, and the Jews would never have established their own Israelite Kingdom in a country inhabited by seven hostile nations. Yehuda reminded them that Hashem is the Chief of Staff of the armies of Israel, and that, if He wills, the Master of Wars can readily triumph over powerful enemies with a tiny number of Jews filled with Emunah. And he reminded his followers that trust in Hashem was not just some fairytale for children, but a down-to-earth reality in the life and history of the Jewish People. The same is true today. Hashem gave Jerusalem and all the Land of Israel to the Jews. Disbelievers and the nations of the world can say what they say, but the promise of Hashem is eternal. We are here to stay.
In the Gemara, the miracle of Hanukah is attributed to the flask of oil that lasted for eight days, while in the Shemona Esrei and Birchat HaMazone, the victory of the few against the many is emphasized. Which miracle is more significant?
“The Maharal, in his treatise on Hanukah, “Ner Mitzvah,” writes that the military victory was the primary miracle. In effect, the miracle of the Menorah wasn’t necessary. When there is no pure oil, it is permissible to light with impure oil. This is a law of the Temple concerning the public congregation, similar to the law which allows the Korban Pesach to be sacrificed, and even to build the Beit HaMikdash, when the majority of the Jewish People in Eretz Yisrael are impure. Additionally, the lighting of the Menorah was halted by the Greeks many years previously. Waiting another few days until pure oil could be procured wouldn’t have caused a tragedy. Furthermore, every time the Menorah was lit in the past, a miracle occurred, since after all of the lights died out, the ‘western lamp’ continued to burn day and night. Thus, in effect, the Hanukah light which lasted eight days was just another miracle of the Menorah. Therefore, the Maharal explains, the miracle of the Menorah didn’t come for its own sake, but rather to teach that the victory over the Greeks was a miracle from Heaven as well. The miracle of the oil was the “Teudat HaKashrut” revealing to everyone that Hashem was the invisible Hand behind the military triumphs of the Maccabees.”
If victory in war is the main thing, why, in our time, did the Chief Rabbinate in Israel establish Yom HaAtzmaut and the recital of Hallel on the day the State was declared, when there was no miracle at all, and not on the anniversary of the day when the War of Independence ended, symbolizing the salvation of the Nation?
“HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook was asked this very same question. He answered that the greater miracle indeed occurred with the declaration of Jewish Statehood, when we overcame all of doubts, hesitations, and fears of the Arabs and the nations of the world, when we stood up and boldly proclaimed the establishment of Medinat Yisrael. This awakening of Jewish valor in the eyes of all mankind, after nearly two-thousand years of Jewish impotence in the galut, was the foundation for all of the military miracles which followed after that in Israel’s wars.”
Why do we recite Hallel on Hanukah, and not on Purim?
“The Gemara (Megilla 14A) replies that we don’t recite Hallel over a miracle that occurred outside the Land of Israel.”
Why then do we recite Hallel on Pesach? 
“The Gemara explains that the miracles associated with Pesach occurred before we entered Eretz Yisrael. From that time forth, we don’t recite miracles of the Diaspora. In the Hallel, we say: ”Let the servants of Hashem praise Hashem,” while at the time of Purim we remained servants of Achasverus. The Jews were saved from mass slaughter, but the miracle didn’t include salvation from subjugation to freedom. We remained subjects of a foreign nation. This situation is unnatural to our essence, as the Psalmist says, ‘How can we sing Hashem’s song in a foreign land?’ (Tehillim 137). The Jewish People as a whole can only attain true national simcha in Eretz Yisrael, in our own Land, and not when we live in Gentiles countries, subjugated to Gentile cultures and Gentile laws. In contrast, our joy on Hanukah expresses our healthy, natural condition, which comes to expression, as the Maharal explains in the first chapter of ‘Nezach Yisrael’ citing three necessary conditions: when the Nation is physically together, when we enjoy our own Israeli sovereignty, and when the Nation dwells in Eretz Yisrael.”
In Israel, many people and yeshivot light their hanukias in aquarium-like containers outside by the doorways to their buildings, or at their gateways by the street, in the public domain as mentioned in the halacha. In the Diaspora where anti-Semitism is so prevalent today, should Jews do the same as an expression of Jewish pride, or is it better to light inside the house or yeshiva building.
“Everyone has to evaluate the options for themselves, but certainly, if there is a clear danger, it is proper to light inside.”
Does Hellenism still exist today?
“Definitely. There are many forms of Hellenism. For the ancient Greeks, Hellenism meant conforming to Greek culture, which glorified the body and fostered the free expression of individual lusts and pleasures. The term for this is Hedonism. This exists today in the cultures of Western society where movements of liberalism and pluralism abound. In ancient Greece, the indulging in pleasure was a way of serving the gods. Today, the quest for pleasure and surrendering to its temptations are the gods themselves.”
How can we fight against this cultural impurity and moral darkness?
“By adding holiness and light.”