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Fervor of Maccabees Defeated Mighty Army

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

The holiday of Hanukkah invites reflection on themes of war and peace.

Changes in the nature of warfare can be quantitative and/or qualitative. There is no neat evolution from primitive hand-to-hand combat, culminating in star wars.

The wars of the Maccabees were fought against combatants on elephants – the tanks of their day. From elephants to tanks does not represent a new strategy, just an alternate means of accomplishing a similar end.

Truly new technology radically affects the conduct of a military campaign. For example, the initial impact of a strategic air campaign was unimaginable in previous centuries. In the 21st century, we can expect new threats in space and cyberspace.

The chances of an old-fashioned, land-based, tank-and-infantry war are receding. We’ve gotten so good at conventional warfare as to render it virtually obsolete.

Some things don’t change, though. Contemporary strategic thinker Colin S. Gray notes, “Belligerents who find themselves materially challenged will seek strategic compensation primarily by means of adopting asymmetric … strategies that might offset their disadvantages.”

Thus, today’s opponents rely on insurgency and asymmetric threats, threats that the mighty U.S. military cannot seem to root out, even with the most advanced technology in the history of warfare.

Which brings us to the story of Hanukkah and the Maccabean warriors. Outnumbered and out-armed, our ancestors undertook a guerrilla campaign in their fight for freedom. The book of II Maccabees depicts the Maccabees “living like wild animals in the mountains and caves.” Ultimately, the forces of Antiochus learned the same lesson that we are relearning now: War is not an arithmetic equation in which the larger and better-equipped force always wins. Ultimately, the Maccabees and their followers prevailed.

Antiochus gave himself the name Epiphanes, meaning “God incarnate.” Beware the leader who thinks he is God. The unwillingness to question one’s own strategic thinking and adjust accordingly has been the downfall of military leaders throughout the centuries. “An army of one” is never a good plan.

Victories in small skirmishes led to the capture of weapons and an increased willingness of volunteers to support the Maccabean insurrection. It is important to note that the Maccabees did not target civilians: The distinction between combatants and noncombatants was an accepted standard “bayamim ha-hem/in those days.”

As the Jewish fighters gained confidence and skill, Antiochus realized that victory was not forthcoming, his treasury was being rapidly depleted, and a negotiated resolution was preferable to an endless and expensive campaign.

B.D. Liddell Hart, in his classic work on strategy, refers to this as self-exhaustion. Hart reminds us that “a good cause is a sword as well as armor.” The Maccabees were sustained by their devotion to a good cause: their right to freedom of religious expression. They were fighting for their own spiritual survival, and, were it not for their bravery, Judaism could easily have disappeared.

Not surprisingly, there was no unanimity regarding the Maccabean perspective among the Jews of their day. Not every Jew supported the resistance; there were those who were ready to assimilate to the Hellenistic way of life.

Sadly, the nature of power is corrosive, and corruption ultimately beset the Maccabean reign.

The rabbinic tradition, uncomfortable with the glorification of military prowess that is at the heart of our celebration of Hanukkah, shifted the emphasis to the miracle of the oil and the message of the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit, says God.” Or, as Hart puts it, “The perfection of strategy would be, therefore, to produce a decision without any serious fighting.”

“Swords into plowshares” – such is the vision of the messianic age of peace for which we hope and pray and work. Until that longed-for time arrives, we celebrate Hanukkah, honoring the bravery of those who risk and, indeed, too often, sacrifice their lives, in support of our freedom, then and now.

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