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Jewish Queen Alexandra

We revere Queen Esther deservedly but too often overlook another queen, this one who ruled Judah, Queen Salome Alexandra (Hebrew -Shalaziyyon) whose rule was not simply outstanding, but whose rule likely dramatically altered history in saving Judaism as we know it. Alexandra (141-67 BCE) was the wife of the first Maccabean ruler Aristobolus l (and later wife of his brother Alexander Jannaeus) to become king since the fall of the First Temple. Her accomplishments were nothing less than extraordinary, and she entered upon the scene of Jewish history beginning with her marriage to Arisobolus l of Maccabean origins but her under-recognized lasting accomplishment was during the official reign of her second husband Alexander Jannaeus and her 9 years of her official reign as queen..

It was Alexandra’s role in rescuing and ensuring priestly power with the Pharisees that led to the ultimate triumph of rabbinic Judaism and its invaluable legacy of the Talmud. Her first husband Aristobolus was a Hellenized Jew and closely allied with the Sadducee priestly party. During the reign of her first husband Aristobolus lasting only a few years she wielded little or no influence. When Aristobolus expired she married his brother Alexander Jannaeus in accordance with Levirate tradition and was able through her resourcefulness to bring the Pharisees previously imprisoned back into the circle of power. One of her first acts was to render her brother Pharisee Shimon ben Shetach as the joint head (with Judah ben Tabai) of the Great Assembly (Sanhedrin)

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The Pharisees, as many know, laid the foundation for Rabbinic Judaism the related development of the Talmud. Most relevantly she allowed the oral law at the core of Pharisee beliefs to be incorporated into the law of the Royal Court. In this effort, she was supported by the people opening the door to popular support and the creation of a culture that created a rabbinic Judaism and ultimately the emergence of the Talmud. Further, she reduced tensions between the two main priestly orders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees by placing the latter within military fortifications which also protected them from invasion. She furthermore promoted a period of peace between the Sadducee priesthood and the Pharisee order while ensuring the Pharisees maintained power and is credited with rescuing the 70 Pharisee elders who were condemned to death. She also through creating such fortifications and others ensured a military presence that foreign nations respected and maintained a lasting peace that prevailed during her reign.

Upon marriage to Alexander Janneus, she was once again faced with an anti-Pharisee leader, and this time she took action to ensure the strengthening of this priesthood. While the latter was away on military exploits he let his queen rule internal affairs and she used this opportunity to remove Sadducee control working with another Pharisee sage Rabbi Joshua be Gamla. It was through .through her joint effort with Rabbi Gamla that every town in the Jewish land had quality schools built and most amazingly ahead of the curve in offering universal religious education to girls as well as boys. Such education began early at 6-7 years and continued long after. Josephus speaks of Joshua ben Gamla in the earlier Greek works as Jesus son of Gamala and goes on to relate Gamla further maintained that teaching young children be ordained He consequently became regarded to be the founder of the institution of formal Jewish Education. Janneus when he was available tried to restore Sadducee dominance but was diligently resisted by the queen and in one case slaughtered 800 families of the Pharisees.

Some significant findings from the Dead Sea Scrolls relate how Alexandria was able to wield such power while even married to Alexander Janneus (a Sadducee supporter) about 29 years and at 14-16 constituting a vast age difference. He was never expected to rule effectively and his inexperience left him preoccupied with his military exploits which left her to the business of ruling over the 29 years of their marriage. While young Janneus was away on his military campaigns which then lasted throughout his remaining years Queen Alexandria ruled at home and when Janneus passed on he in an unprecedented fashion left his kingdom rule to Queen Alexandria who maintained rule over Judea for another 9 years.

The role of Queen Alexandra was largely diminished by the historian Josephus. He described her negatively as not exhibiting the weakness of her sex and being desirous of power with no concern for the future. . This clear sexism was somewhat tempered by his reluctant admission that she enjoyed popularity among the people and upon the death of Alexander Jane’s designated her as ruler since the people would follow none other

Upon Queen Alexandra’s own death a struggle ensued between her son s Aristobulus supporting the Sadducees and his brother Hyrcanus. The former ended up high priest while the latter became king while they continued to clash. Ultimately they called in the Romans to settle the situation where the latter extended a curse upon both houses and Roman rule prevailed.

The legacy of Queen Alexandra, however, was created and lay dormant but surfaced when rabbinic Judaism asserted itself after the fall of the Temple. . One may indeed be justified in asserting that the reign of Alexandra represented the second Maccabean revolt and the one that sealed the triumph of rabbinic Judaism. The early rabbinic rabbis without a flinch recognized her greatness without a trace of sexism declared her the greatest of all rulers since the Maccabean victory calling it the period of peace with bountiful crops as a reward. . Let us restore the memory of her indispensable accomplishments perhaps include them in Hanukkah celebrations in relating them and her role in bringing the Maccabean rule to lasting fruition. The time is ripe to remove the web of obscurity from Queen Alexandra and allow her a rightfully secure honored place in Jewish history.

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Howard Zik is the author of Jewish Ideas. Creator of the Blog: Encountering Holiness and Philosophy