Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Are You A Hellenist?

My Op-Ed in this week's issue of The Jewish Press (link):

It is Chanukah time again and Jews who have imbibed even a bit of modern culture need to ask themselves the hard question: Am I a contemporary Hellenist?

After all, the Hellenists spoke Greek, dressed like Greeks, enjoyed Greek sports and partook of Greek culture. Are Jews today who do any of that with American culture “Hellenists” in whole or in part? Is someone who speaks English and/or dresses like an American and/or goes to baseball games and/or enjoys literature 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? Indeed, the Gemara itself (Megillah 9b) seems to praise the Greek language as a beautiful divine gift that we Jews may gladly embrace.

That 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. Rav Yitzchak Herzog (Judaism: Law & Ethics, pp. 175-176) explained 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, the Hellenists, 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 To many Jews – Hellenist Jews – this base culture superseded their religion. When we replace our religion with foreign values and abandon our covenant with God, we are acting like Hellenists. When, however, we remain firmly entrenched in our Jewish beliefs and observances but expand our horizons with additional, religiously inoffensive culture, we are not acting like Hellenists at all.

Even this, though, is somewhat beside the point. The primary offense of the Hellenists is explained by our continual anachronistic referral to them as Greeks, which they were not. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (Days of Deliverance, pp. 180-184) explained that we call them Greeks because, despite their deviations from the Greek heritage, they retained the Greek desire to missionize, the call to “civilize the savages” by forcefully imposing their culture and beliefs on their subject populations. This was the crime of the Hellenists and the impetus for the Chanukah rebellion.

Relevant to this discussion are the words of the “Al Hanissim” we add to our prayers during Chanukah: “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 make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.”

The key words here are “to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.” The Chanukah story is not about battling acculturated Jews or rejecting philosophy that is consistent with, but not native to, the Torah. It is about clinging to Torah and mitzvos, and rebelling against an oppressive regime that sought to force us to abandon our religion. The Hellenists passed laws forbidding Jews from observing our religion and, for that reason, we fought back and with God’s help defeated them.

This is emphasized by the Rambam in his description of the oppression (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Chanukah 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 mitzvos; 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.

There may be “Hellenists” today who try – through misinformation, intimidation and legislation – to remove Jews from their religious heritage. In my experience, however, the major Jewish movements and certainly the various segments of Orthodoxy do not conform to this description.

Chanukah is the source of many lessons about God, Torah and the Jewish people. It should be used as an opportunity to increase the love of God and His Torah, not as a weapon to denigrate Jews with different views by labeling them “Hellenists.”

The Maccabees were fighting for the survival of the Jewish people, not the division of it into tiny subgroups.

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