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Hanukkah and the Tea Party: Judas Maccabees' Challenge to Conservative Leaders

Hanukkah and the Tea Party: Judas Maccabees' Challenge to Conservative Leaders

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Hanukkah is a glorious holiday.

For Jews it is a reminder that the Jewish heritage is worth defending. It’s a memorial to the conviction that God directs history, which implies at times it is right to organize and resist tyrannous governments that undermine freedom.

While Jesus of Nazareth did encourage peaceful living and turning the other cheek for a personal insult (Matthew 5:39), he also celebrated Hanukkah, the Feast of Temple Dedication (John 10:22-23). By performing the political action of celebrating this festival, he was demonstrating support for what it commemorated, the heroic deliverance of the Jewish people from a tyranny that used state power to undermine freedom, especially religious freedom.

So, while Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday, its origin illustrates that a people can win victory against godless tyranny when they take a stand and walk in the wisdom of their forebearers. The true story of Hanukkah’s origin offers inspiration for we who value freedom of conscience. 

But what is more, conservative leaders should take a page from Judas Maccabees’ playbook. He showed how a leader shapes his organization’s culture through his own use of cultural narratives. 

The book of I Maccabees begins the origin story of Hanukkah in the year 167 BC, when Antiochus IV, king over the Hellenistic Seleucid Kingdom, plundered the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and outlawed Judaism in his realm. Antiochus IV was feeling pressure from the Parthians, who were Persians and Babylonians that resisted the Greek rule of the Seleucid kings. Antiochus’ over-stretched kingdom straddled a vast territory, reaching from modern day Turkey through Iran, and was one of four kingdoms born from Alexander the Great’s conquest of the ancient world. In an effort to consolidate the power of his waning kingdom, Antiochus IV outlawed Judaism to force all his dominion to become one Greek people.

On pain of death, Jews were prohibited from circumcising their children, offering sacrifices to God, or following the Law of Moses. Instead, Antiochus required that they desecrate their children and their places of worship. He made them make offerings to Greek gods and worship them. Any place where the Hebrew scriptures were found, Antiochus IV ordered that they be torn up and burned.

Many capitulated to state power. Some clung to their traditions in secret. But one man decided enough was enough. I Maccabees records that when the king’s officers came to require Mattathias, a prominent priest from the city of Modin, to follow Antiochus’ edict, he refused to comply. In a “Braveheart” moment, Mattathias killed the king’s commissioner who had been sent to compel him follow Antiochus’ edict. He and his five sons, including Judas who came to be known Judas Maccabees (Yehudha HaMakabi or “Judas the Hammer”) fled to the mountains.

Many others joined them. The aged Mattathias died soon after, but he handed leadership of the fledgling company to his son, Judas, who proved himself a remarkable military general and a gifted cultural leader, as we will see below. He led his freedom fighters to victory, defeating the Seleucids at the Battle of Emmaus. He retook Jerusalem, and on December 14, 164 BC he rededicated the Temple. This historic event quickly became memorialized in the “Feast of Dedication,” eventually known as Hanukkah.

Two aspects of his leadership are particularly remarkable. Judas (1) used of symbolic action rooted in the people’s shared cultural traditions and laws, and he (2) led his people through narrating their shared cultural history to them.

1. The use of symbolic action: Under both Mattathias and his son Judas Maccabees, the Jewish freedom fighters fought for their Law, the Torah, which Jews of Second Temple Judaism believed had been revealed to them by their God through the prophet Moses. Thus, Judas Maccabees was careful to lead in a way that was consistent with Torah, even if doing so seemed politically inexpedient. 

For example, Judas allowed soldiers who were building their houses to return home and finish their houses, and those who had just married to return to their wives, and those who had just planted vineyards to return to cultivate them (I Maccabees 3:56). He did this to follow Torah’s teaching that an army should be made of free people who volunteer, not people who have been conscripted (Deuteronomy 20:5-9). Judas Maccabees understood that he was fighting for the freedom to worship God and keep the Torah; therefore, he had to live those principles himself.

Unlike Judas Maccabees, today’s conservatives are almost totally clueless regarding the use of symbolic action. In fact, they repeatedly demonstrate cluelessness to what their actions mean. Take, for example, the vote at the 2012 Republican National Convention that destroyed the possibility that anyone but an establishment candidate will ever be selected as the Republican nominee. John Boehner presided over that floor vote. Someone turned a camera on his teleprompter during the vote, as you can see in the news coverage recorded in the clip below. This coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention comes from Fox19.com, Cincinnati News.

John Boehner just reads the results of the vote off his teleprompter, as though he actually took a floor vote. But it certainly looks like he didn’t. Especially given the many recordings from the floor that suggest the “no” vote was much louder. What is the symbolic value of Boehner’s act? Devastating. He evidenced to many Republicans that they have no voice in their party. What is worse, he implied the Republican party will silence the political voice which the Constitution protects. John Boehner performed a powerfully devastating symbolic act, because he and many other establishment Republicans do not understand symbolic action.

What Andrew Breitbart called “The Institutional Left” is very good at the use of symbolic action, especially the use of precedent to undermine laws. And they also know how to defend against symbolic action. This is why the Senate voted to end the filibuster. No more Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. By the mere act of filibustering drone strikes against American citizens without due process, Rand Paul framed such drone strikes as evil. Ted Cruz framed Obamacare in a similar way with his filibusterer. And we can’t have any more of that. Because the Institutional Left understand the value of symbolic action, its power cannot be granted to the few conservatives who do demonstrate some facility in using it.

Judas Maccabees was able to use symbolic action because he understood the power of cultural narrative.

2. Leadership Through Cultural Narrative: Judas Maccabees understood the cultural narrative of Judaism so well that he was able to match its history to the situations his army faced. He would then use history to explain his current situation to his followers. Then he would show from past history what should be done and why his plan would have success. He used narratives that were well known parts of the cultural history of his people (for example see I Maccabees 4:8-10, 30-33). Not only does he give confidence through these uses of cultural narrative, but he also gives a clear identity to the people he is leading. He probably learned this pattern of leadership from his father Mattathias, who used this method effectively (see I Maccabees 2:49-64).

For decades, the Institutional Left has invested its resources in seizing the initiative to narrate American history in order to frame it according to their ideological presuppositions. Sometimes, they are even willing to manufacture and perpetuate fictions in order to establish a false history for rhetorical purposes. For example, consider the recent revelations regarding the fraudulent gay persecution narrative surrounding Matthew Shepard. The Institutional Left understands the importance of a shared cultural history, which is why it invests so much energy in repeating the narrative that the founders were racists and oppressors. The founders must be made into villains in order to undermine their position of authority, a significant pillar undergirding the authority of our founding document, the Constitution.

Andrew Breitbart recognized this tactic, which is one of the reasons why he made Breitbart.com. One of the best ways to overturn this tactic is to fight it with careful research and solid journalism.

But Judas Maccabees understood that a people need more than current facts about the cultural battlefield or the movements of armies. A people need more than the news. They need a shared, documented, cultural history. This is why the Institutional Left produces projects like Lincoln, Recount, Game Change, The Butler, The Newsroom, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Milk. They take initiative to narrate history, while conservatives complain but do nothing. Judas Maccabees didn’t complain about the stories of Antiochus IV. Rather, he had the imagination to retell the stories of his people, and the courage to live a life worthy of being retold. 

Hanukkah is greater than the Tea Party. It’s dangerous to make political movements into religious movements, for we can only do this by first making an idol out of politics. The Tea Party is just a political movement, and there are many more important things than politics. But we should be willing to take political stands when morality compels us. If the government takes our children’s future and spends it to Bailout Wall Street, are we supposed to stand idle? If Antiochus forces those of faith to desecrate their consciences by paying for the murder of children, what are they to do?

We must ask: Where are our stories?

What is the history of our people? Will we protect that history? Will we celebrate it? Where do we start?

Every movement has an origin story: Even Rahm Emanuel recognizes that the 2008 Bailout of Wall Street ignited the Tea Party. The day it passed, we all learned who our government actually represents. This discovery appalled Americans and spurred a reactionary movement that sparked public demonstrations in every city across America. But what many do not know is that in September 2008, a small group of Congressmen, from both sides of the aisle, joined forces to fight Wall Street and the leadership of both parties. They did this because they realized that only they stood between the American people and those who would use state power to plunder them. By doing this, some of these Congressmen destroyed their political careers and are no longer in Congress. But they didn’t do it for a reward. They did it for us.

The great social movements of history are born on the backs of stories. Movements do not continue without them, without a narrative culture.

We need to tell their story. It’s true, the fight against the 2008 Bailout of Wall Street does not match the glory of what Judas Maccabees achieved. Those who fought the Bailout lost. But their willingness to fight against seemingly impossible odds is exactly what we should expect of those we elect to these high offices. And it’s what we should expect from ourselves. We must become what we want in our leaders. To become like a Judas Maccabees, we must lead by example, and we must lead by taking responsibility to narrate our true history, rather than letting others burn it.  

Dr. Michael Collender researched the fight against the 2008 Bailout of Wall Street for two years.His research included many eyewitness interviews. In 2011 he sold a narrative screenplay that retold the story of this event based on his research. He hasbeen a Visiting Fellow in the Philosophy Institute at the CatholicUniversity of Leuven, Belgium, and has researched and lectured at theJoint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at solvewickedproblems@gmail.com.


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