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Are You A Hellenist?

 

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 To many Jews — Hellenist Jews — this base culture superseded their religion.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.

(Reposted from four years ago)

 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

31 Responses

  1. Ephrayim says:

    “by forcefully imposing their culture and beliefs on their subject populations”

    As I understand it, the Greeks did not use coercion on any other nation besides the Jews. True they tried to civilize the savages, but the religious animosity experienced by the Jews was unique among the nations. Diodorus attributes Greek hostile iconoclast to the Jews’ avoidance of any dealings with their sovereign rulers (see here http://books.google.com/books?id=8jIhYBwkO80C&pg=PA22&lpg=PA22&dq=diodorus+jews&source=bl&ots=uudaBeGz4Z&sig=QZHf8Ltm5LbTqKXrw4uHHZAO1pw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tf_zTrPGLILY0QHkx4SeAg&ved=0CDYQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=diodorus%20jews&f=false) . Considering this, one might posit that what the Maccabees fought for more then just religious freedom. They saw integration into a hedonistic society as the first step towards assimilation. For this they gave their lives.
    I find it hard to believe that the general american society is less hedonistic then standard Greek two thousand years ago. I believe the difference lies in the education that was brought to the masses which enables us to interrogate without assimilating. It wasn’t until Yehoshua ben Gamla, one hundred years later that every child was even taught the basics. BH our community has an adequate education system in place to prevent assimilation. One need just look to what transpired in America just one hundred years ago before there were any jewish schools, to understand how true this is.

    “seems to praise the Greek language as a beautiful divine gift that we Jews may gladly embrace”

    This was actually a matter of dispute at the time. The different opinions of the sages about Greek are not always formulated in the same manner, which makes it hard to discern the different opinions, but there definitely was a machlokes.

  2. Nachum says:

    “the Greek desire to missionize, the call to “civilize the savages””

    As the Rambam says in the context of Christians and Muslims*, missionizing to civilize the savages may very well be a net positive. So long as they recognize that Jews don’t need it.

    *Muslims of the year 1200, that is. Muslims of 2011 could use some missionizing themselves.

  3. joel rich says:

    See Dr. Feldman’s article in http://www.yutorah.org/togo/chanuka/ – very eye opening.
    KT

  4. Moshe Shoshan says:

    In the year 1200 there plenty of fanatical Jihadist Moslems justas today there plenty of moslems who are just as civilized as we are.

  5. Prof Asher J Matathias says:

    B”H
    As a Greek-Sephardic-Romaniote-American Jew I feel the weight of this timely question. Coming to American as a 12-year-old, in 1956, it was in this blessed land that I learned to be a more observant Jew (in the Sephardic-Romaniote tradition), while learning of the rich legacy of both ancient Hellenism — the one we associate with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — all in the context of the liberal Constitutional democracy of the United States. It is not for naught that I playfully assert that G-d must be American, for He has spread so much beneficence to so many here; imagine having been located five parallels north, a veritable Siberia, while five degrees south we would have been a jungle. Instead, we are the most productive, progressive, generous people ever, thanks to those ancestors from England and the adherents of the Old Testament whose Talmudic disposition, at its best, prevents intolerance, callousness, and oppression. Hag Hanukkah sameach, and viva la difference!

  6. ruvie says:

    gil – “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.”

    “The sin of the Hellenists was their attempt to remove us from our religion by law and by force.”

    well, which is it according to you? what was the impetus of the rebeelion. in 175 jerusalem was “hellenized” by jason the kohen gadol. for 5 years that was status quo with peace and harmony. looks like it was the persecution later. but remember “greeks” a polytheist group rarely if ever did this (persecute)- so why this time? nice to have a defined enemy but it doesn’t seem so pashut what happened or why.

    also, many use the term hellenist – that has different meanings to different people

  7. Hirhurim says:

    Ruvie: well, which is it according to you?

    I was equating the two, meaning the former when it reaches the stage of the latter.

    also, many use the term hellenist – that has different meanings to different people

    That is why I defined my usage of the term.

  8. Hirhurim says:

    Joel rich: See Dr. Feldman’s article in http://www.yutorah.org/togo/chanuka/ – very eye opening.

    Isn’t this the same thing he’s been saying for 50 years?

  9. ruvie says:

    gil – hellenization in the sense of “acting greek” while maintaining one’s own cultural identity from hellenization in the sense of ” becoming greek” and so necessarily abandoning one’s previous cultural identity. hellenization in the first sense might culminate in hellenization in the second sense but need not do so. in fact, it may even function to perserve a native non-greek culture. and hellenization in the second sense need not presuppose, rather surprisingly, prior hellenization in the first sense.

    a simple quote from a book on history of this period. greek culture had widespread acceptance by the time alexander the great conquered the east coast of the mediterranean.

    we can accept western ideals and still maintain our jewish heritage and identity.

    “There may be “Hellenists” today who try..” who are they?

  10. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    What 2 Maccabees says about Jason is not so different than what R. Hillel Lichtenstein and R. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger have to say about R. Azriel Hildelsheimer.

    It is interesting that Dr. Feldman does not refer to the later chapters of Daniel as a historical source, though he does refer to a verse fropm Daniel later on in his essay. Note those chapters do not refer to the Hellenists. Also, Jonathan Goldstein’s take on the reasons for the persecution is ignored by Dr. Feldman.

  11. ruvie says:

    prof. kaplan – how is goldstein’s take much different from others? what is his take?

  12. Dov says:

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

    I can just hear my yeshivishe roshei yeshiva saying “that’s what a Hellenist would say…”

  13. Stanley says:

    Gil: Clearly the undertone of this article is defensiveness to the idea that Modern Orthodoxy, or segments thereof, are contemporary Hellenists.

  14. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Ruvie: I’m getting ready for Shabbat But briefly, Goldstein puts the onus for the persecution on Antiochus 4. This fits in with the view of the latter chapters of Daniel.

  15. IH says:

    Footnote #7 includes a reference to “Jonathan Goldstein, II Maccabees (New York, 1983) 198-215″.

    Out of curiosity, would YU be willing to publish an article in “togo” that stated or implied that Sefer Daniel was written in the Maccabean period?

  16. avi says:

    ““There may be “Hellenists” today who try..” who are they?”

    Jewish supporters for the ban on brit milah. Can’t get more anti-Chanukah than that!

    http://intactnews.org/node/103/1311885181/jews-speak-out-favor-banning-circumcision-minors

  17. IH says:

    http://tinyurl.com/6rmcjlt

    The introduction of this paper summarizes the differing conclusions of the scholars, including Goldstein, regarding the question of why Antiochus IV persecuted the Jews.

  18. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    IH: Thanks for noting the footnote to Goldstein. This, however, is a passing reference, and Feldman’s discussion focusses on Tcherikover, Bickerman, and Hengel.

    Re Daniel: If Prof. Feldman is writing an academic article on the background of the Maccabean revolt, then he has the scholarly responsibility for discussing the later chapters of Daniel as an historical source. Otherwise, let him not write the article. Note he refers in passing to Daniel 11:30.

    IH: Thanks for the Doran reference. Note his approach differs from that of Feldman.

  19. Charlie Hall says:

    “I find it hard to believe that the general american society is less hedonistic then standard Greek two thousand years ago.”

    The level of hedonism in both Greek and Roman society is shocking even to modern ears. But we don’t teach that in school much. Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius are much more elevating.

  20. Jerry says:

    “What 2 Maccabees says about Jason is not so different than what R. Hillel Lichtenstein and R. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger have to say about R. Azriel Hildelsheimer.”

    I’m not so sure the comparison works. After all, the High Priest John, for whom the author of 2 Maccabees has great regard, gave his son a Greek name (Eupolemus) as well as a standard Greek education.

  21. mycroft says:

    “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”

    Should be remembered when there are attempts to demonize other groups/individuals.

  22. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Jerry: Perhaps you are right. I’ll have to take another look.

  23. IH says:

    I remain unsure what Prof. Kaplan meant by his comparison, but I thank him for leading me to http://www.scribd.com/doc/37535566/Untitled which is Prof. Schreiber’s 2002 article in The Torah u-Madda Journal: The Hatam Sofer’s Nuanced Attitude Towards Secular Learning, Masklim, and Reformers.

  24. IH says:

    On a more general note: those interested in the intramural sociology issues often discussed on Hirhurim, would get value from reading Prof. Schreiber’s fascinating article.

  25. Hirhurim says:

    I actually spent a good deal of time with Prof. Schreiber editing that essay and another for publication as a book. Unfortunately, that never came to fruition and Prof. Schreiber has since passed away.

  26. LongTimeReader says:

    Did anyone else find that Prof. Feldman’s article needed a thorough editing job?

  27. Nachum says:

    Well, certainly there seems to be a whole chunk repeated at one point.

  28. Avi says:

    Actually it was the attack on the Hellenists that provoked Antiochus to recruit an army mostly of mercenaries from the Greek Islans, in fact he was so bad at running his economy that to raise money he had to stop in Persia and get some tax monies. He was just not good at finances and what an army can cost during war.

    Mattiyahu had been asked to come forward as an example and show the people that it was ok to follow the Greek way. When he refused and another Jew stepped foreward with an officer to offer a sacrifice and Mattityahu killed him, that was what brough Anitochus down to figh, that outlawed this or that Jewish practice was frosting, as can be seen he was an inept ruler and he really had no way of enforcing his anti Jewish practice laws. But an attack on an officer could not be left unanswered.

    The Kiddush cup is the Roman Wine Goblet, we have a month named after a Babylonian God Tammuz. Most of Jewish practice reeks of Roman or Hellenistic influences. You tell me that Chanukah Gifts are not a Judaizing of Christmas gift giving and I wil call you a liar. Josephus and both book of Maccabees dont say anything of jugs of oil. The 8 days should souly be dedicated to the Chanukat Hamizbeach and the victorys of the Hashmonaim and the brave Jews who fought against Antiocusus army, that was the miracle, when Antiochus General Lysia had to withdraw and run back with his troops to Antioch in Asia Minor because our fathers fought like madmen and it unnerved the whole invading army. We celebrate because Yehuda Hamaccabi was the hero of the day and he polised the Mikdash inside and out and righly celebrated what was just one victory out of the many many more battles to come.

    Jews need some common sense. The jug of oil story arose out of animosity towards the Hashmonean leadership and initiative so to deflect from this they come up with some tale of a jug of oil lasting 8 days, as though the Menorah which wasn’t being lit anyways during the fighting and couldn’t be lit till the Temple was cleaned of the Tumah imposed on it couldn’t wait another eight days for some fresh oil.

  29. maven says:

    The question of Hellenists and subsequent Jewish history was well presented from an Orthodox viewpoint here http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2011/12/18/28437/

  30. JJ says:

    If the history of the Jews is examined, we will discover that there isn’t a culture or civilization with which we had encounter where, depending upon the length of time of that encounter, we didn’t absorb some values. The attempt to say that there always was and is and will be one kind of Jew is a predicative statement, but not a descriptive one.

  31. Sy says:

    Avi is right on the money. History should not be subverted to theological machinations which is often the case in Judaism IMHO.

 
 

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