The founders of the “Jewish Olympics” had a formidable task. To find a name for the games, they had to pick through Jewish history and find a hero who, if not actually athletic, was minimally physically fit. Two millennia of pasty-faced scholars did not qualify, so they reached back further. King David had a spindly physique and, as the author of Psalms, was remembered more for his lyrical poetry than his military conquests. The greatest war hero among the Biblical kings was perhaps Ahab, the husband of Jezebel, but he was a villain. “The Ahab Games” just wouldn’t do.

Then, voila! They found them: the Maccabees! These five brothers valiantly fought and vanquished the mighty Greek army. They were physically strong and morally upstanding. The games would be called the Maccabiah. After all, the Maccabees are the perfect role models for aspiring Jewish athletes.

Or are they?

Who Were the Maccabees Anyway?

The Maccabees were distinguished by two traits: They were idealistic and they were undaunted by difficulty.

In terms of their idealism, the name “Maccabee” says it all. The five brothers were the sons of the elderly priest Mattathias. The family designation was “Hasmonean.” The appellation “Maccabee” is actually an acronym for Mi kimocha b’eilim Hashem, meaning: “Who is like You among gods, God!” “Maccabee” is a statement of one-pointed dedication to the One God.

The battle the Maccabees waged was the first war in history to be fought not for the sake of land or power, but for the sake of a religious ideal.

For the first 160 years after Alexander the Great’s peaceful takeover of Judea, the Greek Hellenists allowed their cultural influence to gradually win over the Jewish population. The urban elite of Jerusalem adopted Greek language, dress, and artistic and cultural mores, including the hitherto unknown pastime of engaging in sports. While physical strength and prowess were always valued for military conquest, the Greeks made athletics an end in itself, instituting competitions where the fastest/strongest/most adept were feted. In Jerusalem, they built a sports stadium to the south of the Holy Temple. There young Jews, including priests, competed naked. Many had their circumcision surgically reversed, for the Greeks idolized nature and spurned circumcision, the Jews’ sign of their covenant with God.

The choice of the cosmopolitan residents of Judea to become Hellenists was simply conforming to a world trend. Greek culture, after all, was modern, enlightened, scientific, and universalistic, while Judaism was widely regarded as old-fashioned, tribal, and restrictive. In that era, taking on the Greek lifestyle was a prerequisite to becoming materially successful and culturally sophisticated. As historian Paul Johnson wrote: “Acquiring Greek culture was a passport to first-class citizenship, as later would be baptism.” [A History of the Jews, p. 99]

Of course, all this was anathema to traditional Jews such as Mattathias, but as long as they were allowed to continue to study and observe the Torah, they submitted to Greek rule. All that changed in 167 B.C.E., when the Seleucid Greek King Antiochus issued a decree outlawing the practice and study of the Torah, on pain of death.

Greek troops entered the village of Modi’in and commanded the residents to sacrifice a pig to an idol. One obsequious Jew stepped forward to comply. An enraged Mattathias killed the apostate and the Greek officer. Then he, his sons, and a handful of his supporters fled to the hills.

The Maccabees were, first and foremost, idealists.

One can only imagine the discussion that took place that night in the cave where Mattathias and his five sons were hiding. As they huddled in the cold (because they dared not light a fire that would give away their whereabouts), they had to plan their next step. They never intended to start a war; they didn’t dream of vanquishing the mighty, well-equipped Greek army. Only one thing was clear to them: They would continue to practice the mitzvot of the Torah, and no force on earth would stop them. And if Antiochus sent his troops to enforce his nefarious decree, they would fight those troops. They would fight for their religious ideals.

The Maccabees were, first and foremost, idealists.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, o.b.m., used to say: “Figure out what you’re willing to die for. Then live for it.” That could have been the motto of the Maccabees. They were willing to die (and all five of them did die!) for God and His Torah. In that cave they decided to start fighting for that ideal.

Had they been pragmatists, they would have cowered before the Greek army with its 40,000 well-trained, well-equipped troops, plus elephants, the tanks of the ancient world. Had they been realists, they would have surrendered to the zeitgeist of assimilation that had already swept their country and their people. But they were idealists, and an idealist does what’s right, whatever the cost, whatever the result.

Miraculously, they ended up winning. After three years of guerilla warfare, they drove the Greeks from Jerusalem and from the Holy Temple, and reinstituted the service in the Temple. It took them a full 26 years to achieve complete victory over the Greeks, and by that time four of the Maccabee brothers had been killed. Only Simon lived to witness the final withdrawal of the Seleucid Greek forces from Jerusalem, and seven years later he too was killed by a Seleucid plot.

Idealists, the Maccabees both devoted their lives and gave their lives for their religious ideals.

Undaunted by Difficulty

Sometimes a person who rises to heroic heights for the sake of ideals is routed by the day-to-day hardships of living. In our times, the plaintive, “But it’s hard!” has become a common response to all kinds of proposals meant to benefit oneself and others.

Let’s go back to the cave where the Maccabees are discussing what to do. Imagine a 21st century person joining the discussion.

Judah Maccabee: We can’t go back to our village. The Greeks are looking for us. We’ll have to live here in the cave, without any of the comforts of home.

21st century person: But that’s hard.

All heads turn, but they decide to ignore the interruption. Another brother continues:

Jonathan: We can’t even stay in this cave. We’ll have to keep moving around so the Greeks won’t find us.

21st century person: But that’s hard.

Simon: It means not seeing our wives and children—for as long as this takes. It could be a very long time.

21st century person: But that’s hard.

Eliezer: We can’t just hide. We have to go out and attack the Greek troops, engage them in battle.

21st century person: Are you kidding? That would be really hard.

Maccabees, annoyed, in unison: What does “hard” have to do with it?

Fortunately for us, the Maccabees were not discouraged by difficulty. If they had been, the Hellenists would have won, and Judaism would have disappeared. Not only would there be no Chanukah, but there would be no Judaism and no Jews.

The Maccabees, dedicated to an ideal and undaunted by difficulty, are indeed worthy Jewish role models. The world’s highest pole-vaulter has nothing on them!