The British royals are again having an annus horribilis. “What the butler saw” is no longer a seaside game. Conspiracies in castles, shenanigans among the staff, palace privacy made public – what would Queen Victoria think?
Royals are far from a modern invention. But the difference is that when there was a royal annus horribilis, the populace never knew. Newspapers had not been invented, television was unheard of, and people probably thought that kings and queens had haloes.
One of the rare exceptions was the Jews. The Bible paints pictures of royals with warts and all. The rabbinic tradition continues in this vein with its often blunt and highly disrespectful comments about kings and queens, Jewish and otherwise.
There was a succinct and damning judgment of King Antiochus of Syria. Officially he was Antiochus Epiphanes, Antiochus the Splendid. Jews called him Epimanes, the Madman. A foolish, arrogant, self-opinionated king ruled by delusions of grandeur, that’s how they thought of him.
If a modern author revisited Antiochus they might, however, do the fashionable thing and try to rehabilitate him. Today the heroes have to be shown to have feet of clay and the villains to have hearts of gold. This sort of thing sells books and makes authors famous.
I’m not going to attempt a reworking of Antiochus. I am not interested enough, nor do I think the traditional Jewish view is so far off the mark. But I wonder if Jews should not be at least a little grateful to him – not for what he did, but for what he enabled us to do.
For in his time Judaism was threatened with cultural extinction. Hellenistic culture was swamping Jewish identity, especially amongst the upper crust. Jews had to be more Greek than the Greeks. If circumcision embarrassed a Jewish athlete, then they had to attempt to disguise it. If Jewish names were not Greek enough, they had to be gentilised. Given another few generations, there might have been hardly any Judaism left.
Greek culture at its highest could be great, inspiring, enriching. But it was Greek culture on a lower level that was penetrating Judea. What attracted people was not so much Greek logic and reasoning but the cynical, pleasure-loving, indulgent philosophy that made bodily pleasure the highest happiness. Old standards of morality and religion were tame compared to the alluring permissiveness – spearheaded by the deities themselves – which was the new and exciting fashion.
No wonder that responsible Jewish leaders viewed the future with apprehension. Then Antiochus did us a favour. “King Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people and that each should forsake his own laws.” It gave Jews such a jolt when in pursuance of this policy he proceeded to attack Jerusalem, defile the Temple, ban Jewish observance and require that Jews sacrifice to Greek gods on Mount Olympus.
We all know the result. Chanukah commemorates not only the defeat of a tyrant but the rekindling of the light of Jewish loyalty. As it has been said, “The altar was rededicated and so were the people”. Antiochus had gone too far. But in doing so he may have done us a favour.