Timely Thoughts

The Hasmoneans as a Paradigm for Modern Jewish Sovereignty

Peter paul Rubens, "The Triumph of Judas Maccabee," Museum of Fine Artsin Nantes
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Shimshon HaKohen Nadel

With the miraculous return of the Jewish People to their ancestral homeland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new questions arose which for 2000 years were but the subject of dreams. Among them: Can a democratic government be established in the Land of Israel or must a king be appointed? Must we appoint a Sanhedrin? What would be the mechanism for this? In the absence of a Jewish government, can we create our own army or civil-defense groups, or must we rely on the secular government for protection?

Following the Second Aliyah, defense organizations like Bar-Giora, Hashomer, and Haganah were formed to protect the yishuv from theft and violence. At the time, there was much opposition by leading rabbis who questioned if members of the nascent Jewish settlement had the authority to ‘go to war’ against their enemies without a king or a Sanhedrin.

In a responsum (Mishpat Kohen 144) written to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Pines in 1916, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook defends the creation of Jewish militias and Jewish self-defense and justifies establishing a Jewish sovereign nation, even without a king or Sanhedrin.

Rav Kook argues that concerning issues of sovereignty, there may be a distinction between the  ideal approach and one dictated by reality.

For example, Rav Kook points to an apparent contradiction in the Rambam: In Hilkhot Melakhim 1:3, Rambam rules that a king must be appointed by the Sanhedrin and by a prophet. Subsequently, in Hilkhot Melakhim 5:1, Rambam rules that a Sanhedrin must appoint the king, leaving out any mention of a prophet. Rav Kook reconciles the apparent contradiction by suggesting the latter ruling applies when there is no prophet. In such a case, an appointment by the Sanhedrin suffices.

Similarly, while ideally the King of Israel should descend from the House of David, Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 1:8-9) allows for a King from another tribe of Israel to rule on a temporary basis. Rav Kook defends the Hasmoneans, kohanim from the Tribe of Levi, and writes that while they should have at first refused the monarchy, or at least returned the throne to the House of David once peace reigned, they were appointed by the “consent” of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish Nation.

It is this same “consent of the Jewish Nation” that forms the basis for Rav Kook’s argument justifying the creation of a modern Jewish sovereign state. He writes, “When there is no king, since the laws of government concern the general welfare of the Nation, the rights of government return to the Nation.” The Jewish People have the right to self-determination and are granted the authority to create a government.

Rav Kook goes as far as saying that “any lawmaker that arises in Israel has the status of king concerning governing the state.” He cites Rambam (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 4:13), who rules that the Exilarch (Reish Galuta) in Babylonia had the status of king, and writes, “all the more so when there are leaders chosen by the Nation when she is in her sovereign land.”

It is curious that Rav Kook draws upon the Hasmonean Dynasty. While the Hasmoneans are certainly the heroes of the Hanukkah story, their end was not a pretty one. Plagued by corruption, political assassinations, and assimilation, they ultimately succumb to the very Hellenization that they had fought so hard against.

In his commentary to Genesis 49:10, Ramban is particularly critical of the Hasmoneans. He indicts them for usurping the throne from the House of David as well as desecrating their priesthood, and sees their downfall as divine punishment.

It has even been suggested that the Sages intentionally downplayed the success of the Hasmoneans, which may explain why only a few, scant references to the Hasmoneans are found in the Talmud. In fact, the very topic of Hanukkah occupies only a minimal space in the Talmud. And when relating the Hanukkah story, the Talmud focuses solely on the miracle of the oil, leaving out the military victory (Shabbat 21b).

But Rav Kook saw the Hasmonean Dynasty as a paradigm for the creation of modern Jewish nation on its soil, in spite of their flaws. While they were not the picture of perfection, they restored Jewish sovereignty and ruled for over a century. Similarly, Rav Kook understood that it would be the secular Zionists and pioneers who would build the modern State of Israel.  

This is consistent with much of Rav Kook’s thought. He believed that, “in all aspects of life the secular awakens first, and afterwards the holy must awaken to complete the resuscitation of the secular” (Ma’amarei ha-Ra’aya, 404). In relation to the State of Israel, his son, Rav Z.Y. Kook, drawing upon Me’ilah 14a, would often say, “First we build, then we sanctify.”

As the eight days of Hanukkah were established by our Sages as days of “thanksgiving and praise” (Shabbat 21b), now might be an appropriate time to reflect on how fortunate we are to have a Jewish State, even if it is still a ‘work-in-progress.’