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Chanukah 5774: Are we today’s Hellenists?

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In memory of our son Yaakov Yehudah Frimer

Every year as Chanukah rolls around, I ask myself: "Who really won the war between the Maccabees and the Helenists?" Tradition leads us to believe that it was the Maccabees – but I'm not sure. After all, the Hellenists spoke Greek, dressed like Greeks, enjoyed Greek sports, and partook of Greek culture. Similarly, most of my friends and I do the very same thing, mutatis mutandis (i.e. with the necessary changes having been carried out). I am steeped in Western and American culture. I speak English, dress like an American, go to baseball games, and enjoy world literature like the writings of Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Dostoyevsky.

Am I a contemporary Hellenist? Am I ignoring the main theme of the Chanukah holiday? For that matter, how did the Rambam reconcile his great respect for Greek philosophers and his adoption of many Greek philosophical approaches with the apparent Chanukah message rejecting Greek ideas? How did Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (Megilla 9b) praise the Greek language as a beautiful divine gift that we Jews may gladly embrace? "May the beauty of Yefet (the forebear of Greece) reside in the tents of Shem (the forebear of Judaism)". All this seems to fly in the face of the conventional understanding of the Chanukah message as a rejection of gentile culture and thought.

To answer these questions, we need to first establish the identity of the Greeks against whom the Maccabees rebelled. Rabbi Gil Student ( cites former Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Herzog (Judaism: Law & Ethics, pp. 175-176), who points out that the oppressive regime under discussion did not consist of students of Socrates and Aristotle. While Alexander the Great was himself a student of Aristotle and brought with him this profound Greek culture, over a century had passed by the time of the Maccabees and the Syrian-Greek culture in the land of Israel had degenerated into a hedonistic, self-absorbed society.

These Syrian-Greeks of the Chanukah story tried to be the spiritual descendants of the Greeks but actually regressed to frivolity and decadence. To many Jews - Hellenist Jews - this base culture superseded their Jewish religion. When we replace our religion with foreign values and abandon our covenant with God, we are acting like Hellenists. This is assimilation. When, however, we remain firmly entrenched in our Jewish beliefs, observances, and self-identity - but merely expand our horizons with additional, religiously inoffensive culture - we are not acting like Hellenists at all. This is acculturation.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Days of Deliverance, pp. 180-184) maintains that even this distinction between assimilation and acculturation, though valid, misses the central point. The primary offense of the Hellenists and the reason we call them Greeks - despite their serious deviations from the Greek heritage – is that they retained the Greek desire to missionize. They strongly believed that their calling was to "civilize the savages" by forcefully imposing their culture and beliefs on their subject populations. This was the real crime of the Hellenists and the impetus for the Chanukah rebellion.

The "Al Hanissim" words said during Chanukah are apropos: "In the days of Matisyahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Greek government rose up against Your people Israel, to force them to forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will."

The key words here are the last cited: "…to force them to forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will". The Chanukah story is not about battling assimilated Jews or rejecting Greek philosophy. It is about clinging to Torah and mitzvot, and rebelling against an oppressive regime that sought to force us to abandon our religion. The Hellenists passed laws forbidding Jews from observing their religion and for that reason we fought back and, with God's help, defeated them.

This is emphasized by Maimonides in his description of the Syrian-Greek oppression (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Hanukah 3:1): "In the days of the Second Temple, when the Greeks ruled, they decreed restrictive laws against Israel in order to destroy their religion. They did not allow them to engage in Torah and mitzvot; they laid their hands on their property and on their daughters, and they entered the Temple, made breaches in it, and defiled that which was pure. Israel suffered mightily under them, and [the Greeks] greatly oppressed [Israel], until the God of our fathers took pity on them and saved them from their hands, and delivered them."

The sin of the Hellenists was their attempt to remove us from our religion by law and by force. It would seem appropriate, then, that Chanukah should be used as an opportunity to bring Jews closer together by building our Jewish identity through education and stronger Jewish communities.

Chag urim sameah to all.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 



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