Handel’s Judas Maccabeus in Context

By Leon Botstein

When tonight’s performance of one of G. F. Handel’s more famous oratorios was scheduled a year ago, the intent of the ASO was to offer a friendly and reassuring program fit for the season, but one that was not entirely conventional. Handel’s Judas Maccabeus is hardly obscure though it is not the Messiah in terms of the frequency of performances. We, as citizens and residents of the greater New York area, home to so many American Jews, have been accustomed to linking Hannukah and Christmas as key constituents of an ecumenical “season” (as in the phrase, “Season’s Greetings”). So what better choice than a setting of the story that is the basis of the Hannukah holiday, an oratorio by a Baroque composer, a Protestant German transplanted to London and in the employ of the English monarch, the head of the Anglican Church, performed in New York City’s magnificent Baptist place of worship, Riverside Church?

The events set into motion by the horrific terrorist attack on civilians by Hamas on 7 October 2023 have not diminished the importance of ASO’s initial intent—to encourage a shared sense of humanity and friendship across religious divides. Quite the opposite. But the unanticipated context of tonight’s performance invites further reflections on Handel’s subject and his treatment of it.  As the distinguished composer and musicologist Byron Adams explains in his notes to this performance, Handel’s work was written to celebrate the military victory of the English over the Scots at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The choice of the victory of the Maccabees as symbolic of the same divine justice in the English triumph was not only flattering to the Duke of Cumberland but also in part a gesture of gratitude to the Jewish community of London and the financial support of its banking elite to the English crown. The work’s premiere was a breakthrough in what would be a struggle for acceptance for Jews in England life, culture, and politics, one defined by only partial and hard-won victories. Historic as the premiere and subsequent popularity of this oratorio were, anti-Semitism has remained a potent presence in English culture and politics.

Consider depictions of Jews in English literature. They include the complex lead character, Shylock, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as well as the sympathetic Jewish characters Isaac and Rebecca (who, out of fear of persecution in England, plan to flee to Spain) in Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 Ivanhoe, set in the time of the Crusades. Among the most influential English literary accounts of Jews and Judaism can be found in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, which appeared between 1776 and 1781. Gibbon was ten years old when Handel’s oratorio was first performed.

In the second volume of his twelve-volume masterpiece, in chapter 15, Gibbon explored the roots of Christianity in Judaism, Christianity’s divergence from these roots, Christianity’s triumph as a universalist religion, and above all, its role in bringing the Roman Empire to its end. Gibbon’s extensive account of ancient Judaism is shaped by his reading of historical sources but also by contemporary mid-eighteenth-century attitudes toward Jews. For Gibbon, “zealousness” is a key to understanding Jews. Despite asserting a monopoly on divine truth, they resist bringing others into their fold. Jews felt no obligation to preach the true faith of Moses to others. They were “obstinate,” and demonstrated “inflexible perseverance” when faced with the very liberal demands of Roman polytheism, rejecting any gesture of compromise to their monotheism. Jews therefore remained small in number and not suited to conquest but rather to defense. Furthermore, the “inflexible” laws of Moses Jews followed with “rigor” represented “peculiar” and “trivial” distinctions and “burdensome” observances that became “objects of disgust and aversion for the other nations, to whose habits and prejudices they were diametrically opposite.” The “dangerous” and “painful” “rite of circumcision” was, for Gibbon, the most characteristic practice of Judaism; it was repellant and communicated the exclusivity, arrogance, and illiberalism characteristic of adherents to the Jewish faith.

The Judas Maccabeus in Handel’s Oratorio does not entirely dispense with this familiar set of stereotypes, but he transcends them. He is cast as the heroic defender of the true faith, a placeholder for the contemporary need in England to defend against Catholicism and the Stuart claims on the English throne. It should be remembered that Handel’s oratorio was written several decades before the gradual legal emancipation of Jews on continental Europe and in England. In England, legal restrictions against Jews were dropped only gradually, and with stiff opposition. They were entirely abolished finally at the end of the nineteenth century. Therefore, for Jews in the European and North American diaspora, from the mid eighteenth century through to today, Judas Maccabeus became an aspirational symbol of the Jewish capacity to fight back against the effort to deny them civic equality, and further humiliate them and their faith by the spread of anti-Semitic myths that made their exclusion from full participation in the political life of any nation popular.

As pariahs without full legal rights, Jews were condemned to a dissonant existence; in many respects, they were free, comfortable, and engaged in the commerce of life; they were accepted in certain spheres, especially as converts to Christianity. But throughout the nineteenth century, Jews remained, as a community, powerless, contained, and vulnerable. The more they sought security by becoming exceptional Europeans—achieving great heights in the sciences, the legal and medical professions, in the arts, and in commerce, all activities dependent on learning, study, and innovation—the more remote, exotic, and appealing the Maccabees seemed. The Maccabees represented the alternative: liberation from persecution, the creation of a coherent nation of Jews who insisted on political independence and control, and therefore a normal status shared by citizens of other nations; only by becoming political equals could anti-Semitism be defeated and its legacy overcome.

With the advent of political Zionism toward the end of the nineteenth century, whether expressed in George Eliot’s 1876 Daniel Deronda or Theodor Herzl’s 1896 The Jewish State, many Jews expressed disillusionment about their chance to shed the necessity of exceptionalism and demonstrate that they were humans like everyone else in the European context. But among all Jews, including Zionists and non-Zionists, the religious and resolutely secular, the Maccabees remained symbols of a fact obscured and denied by anti-Semitism: the notion that Jews possessed the full range of human attributes, including prowess as soldiers and equality on the playing fields, as poignantly portrayed in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Jewish sports leagues were named after the Maccabees. Spurred by the spectacle of the Dreyfus Trial, in the twentieth century, the lighting of the Hannukah menorah and its visible display communicated a sense of pride in the community, and the confidence that Jews could and would defend themselves; that they would survive the universal discrimination and persecution that haunted them. For Zionists before 1948, it expressed the hope that, in the end, Jews might have their own nation, just as all other European peoples did, and in the very place where the story of Judas Maccabee took place. For the majority, particularly in the United States, Hannukah expressed the hope that equality and justice for Jews within their home nations would be achieved.

Indeed, the many Handel oratorios based on topics from the Biblical history of Jews can be seen as a starting point of two hundred years of a history of progress in terms of co-existence, assimilation, acculturation, and efforts to end forms of intolerance and prejudice against Jews. Jews became patriots in the nations they lived in and served, for example, in the armies on both sides of World War I. Only a very small minority of them anticipated that six million civilian Jews would be slaughtered between 1939 and 1945. It is understandable but misleading to read the history of the Jews of Europe backward from the Holocaust. Its success certainly represents the victory of anti-Semitism over a reasonable expectation of progress. But one should not forget that the failure of Europe and the United States to rescue and protect Europe’s Jews after the seizure of power by the Nazis in Germany in 1933 came as a shock to Europe’s Jews.

The establishment of a State of Israel in 1948 has changed the significance of Hannukah and the story of Judas Maccabeus. Hannukah is a secular national holiday in Israel that celebrates the fact of the Jewish state; before 1948, in the diaspora, that possibility was only the miracle suggested by the holiday. The creation of Israel, however, has not ended anti-Semitism, as the events of recent years have shown, particularly the weeks following 7 October, in Europe and United States. Anti-Semitism possesses potency and resilience.

Consequently, tonight’s performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus takes on special meaning. It represents the hope that art, as a dimension of culture and politics, can offer a common ground on which hatred and bigotry can be fought. The performance of a work that, brilliantly and eloquently, appropriates a biblical story and transposes it into eighteenth-century English politics, reminds us that despite differences in who we are, where we come from, and what faith we possess, we are all equal, deserving of the same rights and freedoms, and all fundamentally the same as human beings, capable of both good and evil, and rarely saints or devils. At the same time, all of us are obliged by virtue and necessity to work together on behalf of a world of peace and justice.

This sentiment seems a fitting message to be delivered through music for this holiday season. In that spirit, all of us at the American Symphony Orchestra wish each and every individual on stage and in the audience a happy and peaceful holiday season.

Written for

Judas Maccabaeus