The Missing Heroine of Hanukka
This Hanukka, for the sake of our daughters, let’s tell the missing piece of the Maccabee story. Let’s celebrate the Queen of the Jews, who saved the Maccabee legacy when their grandsons were ready to squander it. Queen Salome Alexandra commanded armies, but earned the name Shalom-Zion, Queen of the Peace of Zion. She advanced the rights of divorced women, but stayed married for 27 years to an alcoholic tyrant. Strictly observant, she built mikvaot, pools for purification, throughout Judea. Yet she constructed forts, arranged treaties and met with the Sanhedrin. After 90 years of war, in the 9 years she sat alone on the throne, Judea had peace. Rabbis of the Talmud said that during her reign, lentils grew as large as gold coins.
You probably thought that after the Maccabees rededicated the Temple in 164 B.C.E. the Jews became independent of Syria. Wrong. It took 25 years of struggle before the Jews were free from Syrian control. Judah Maccabee and three of his four brothers were killed. His grateful countrymen acclaimed the surviving brother, Simon, as high priest.
Why did it take so long? Because the Maccabee war was a civil war and a cultural war. Syria, Egypt and most countries bordering the Mediterranean were ruled by Macedonian Greeks, descendants of the conquering generals of Alexander the Great. They brought with them Hellenism, an opulent, highly sexualized form of Greek culture. Judea’s elites—priests, nobles, wealthy landowners and merchants—wanted to be part of that “cool, sophisticated” dominant world culture. They viewed Jewish ways as primitive and confining. They celebrated the feast of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and sacrificed pigs. A Jewish high priest, Menelaus, suggested that the Syrian king Antiochus IV outlaw Jewish practices such as circumcision. Judah Maccabee and his followers fought not only Syrian soldiers but the Hellenizers among the Jewish elite. But after independence, this wealthy elite was still powerful. They used gifts, flattery and military support to woo the Maccabee descendants to their side. Simon’s eldest grandson, Aristobolus I (who took the title king as well as high priest), called himself a philhellene, a lover of Greek ways.
In the time of Rabbi Simeon ben Shetach and in the time of Queen Salome Alexandra, the rain would fall on Friday nights from one week to the next, until the wheat grew to the size of kidneys (kidney beans), the barley the size of olive pits, and the lentils the size of golden denars. — Leviticus Rabba 35:10
In reaction to the corruption of the priests, there arose a movement of sages, rabbis and their followers, who taught strict adherence to Jewish law. The wealthy elite ridiculed this movement, calling them Pharisees—separatists. Most followers of the Pharisees were common people. But they had a friend at the very top: Queen Salome Alexandra (Shalom-Zion), who was married first to Aristobolus I, and after his death to his younger brother Alexander Janneus (Yannai). King Yannai hated the Pharisee rabbis, fought a six-year war against them and crucified 800 of their leaders. After Yannai’s death, Shalom-Zion helped the rabbis rebuild. During the nine years of her solo reign, rabbis spread the study and practice of Jewish law throughout the kingdom of Judea.
It was thanks to Shalom-Zion’s intervention that Judaism survived at all. Four years after her death, during a war between her sons, the Roman general Pompey conquered Judea. During a Jewish revolt in 70 C.E., Rome razed the Temple, and during another revolt in 135 C.E., Jews were exiled from Judea. It took nearly 2,000 years before Jews were again able to establish an independent nation in their homeland. But thanks to Shalom-Zion, Jews were equipped for spiritual survival in the diaspora. They were no longer dependent on a leadership of priests and a ritual of Temple sacrifice. Their new leaders, their rabbis, their teachers, traveled with them. Their homes became the sacred sites of the rituals and rules that kept their faith alive.
Judy Petsonk is the author of the historical novel Queen of the Jews: A Novel (Blair Books).