Hellenism & the Struggle for Jewish Identity

Hanukkah picThe appeal of Hanukkah is amazing. Other occasions have their ups and downs, sometimes honoured in the breach more than the observance. But Hanukkah continues to win and hold the loyalty of vast numbers of Jews, and to be brought into the public arena as well. Not bad for a festival that is not mentioned in the Tanach. It can’t just be because of the doughnuts and latkes.

The sages actually asked in the Talmud, “Mai Chanukah” – “What is Hanukkah?” (Shabbat 23b). The popular story is that it was a struggle between Jews and Greeks, Jerusalem and Athens. That’s why one of the verses of Ma’oz Tzur, begins, “Yevanim nik’betzu alai” – “the Greeks gathered against me”.

The idea of a conflict with Greeks in ancient Judea is not entirely wrong, but neither is it entirely right. Two aspects need to be taken into consideration – the internal struggle between groups within the Jewish people, and commonalities between Judaism and Hellenism.

In the struggle between Egypt and Syria for control of Judea, some Jews sided with Egypt, some with Syria. Paradoxically, there was Hellenism in both the Egyptian and the Greek cultures, and the issue is not merely which empire would to be more protective of the Jews, but how far the Jews could go in identifying with its version of Greek culture.

So the internal conflict was between two groups of Jewish pro-Hellenists. They had commonalities – language, clothing, literary forms and styles, legal concepts and institutions, even legends. Jewish Hellenizers hoped to be able to maintain Jewish practice in a relatively tolerant pagan environment.

But Jewish nationalism was more stubborn than many people expected. Jews would not easily give up their Sabbath, circumcision, food laws and Torah reading. The traditionalists supported Egypt, whilst extreme Hellenists supported Syria.

There was a deeper philosophical issue. Could Jewish thinking fit into the matrix of Greek ethics and ideas?

It was not a one-time challenge. Change the details and you find a similar encounter with outside philosophies throughout history.

Jewish and Greek thinking diverged radically. Judaism believed in a God who gave a Torah as the path of truth and virtue. Greeks thinking preferred reason as the way to truth and virtue.  The Greeks liked to be surrounded by statues and pictures, and they valued physical handsomeness. Judaism refused to have anything to do with graven images and regarded the purpose of life as not mere pleasure but serious duty to God and man.Hellenism loved beauty, Judaism loved goodness. The one taught “art for art’s sake”, the other “art for goodness’ sake”.

The historic story of Hanukkah continues to be retold in our modern lives with the same themes struggling with each other. Our joyous celebration infuses the struggle with a rededication to who we are and the values we embrace.

Chag Urim Sameach!

Noah, Our Prototypical Leader

noahRashi’s words about Noah (Gen. 6:9) come to mind every time we read the story:

Noah was “righteous in his generation” and had he lived in a better generation he would have been even more righteous; alternatively, it was only in his generation that he was righteous, and had he lived in a better generation like Abraham’s he would not have been considered at all.

Why mention Noah and Abraham in the same sentence? Because each had his own way of handling his situation. Noah was so different from his contemporaries that he had to shield himself from them; Abraham saw the people of his time as a challenge and he tried to make them more righteous.

This is the conventional explanation, but it’s unfair to Noah. Using Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, he was a “moral man in an immoral situation.” No-one had faced up to the problem before Noah’s time and Noah was not even aware of an alternative or better way of facing a morally hostile environment.

Yes, Abraham was more morally sophisticated, but he had the memory of Noah to guide him. He knew what Noah had done, and he worked out in his own mind that there was another, morally superior way of acting.

We are all made by history, but Noah was the one who had to make history and establish a basis for Abraham to consider and improve upon.

Is iPhone Obsession Akin to Idolatry?

Question: Today’s youth think nothing of spending the night in front of an Apple store to pick up the latest iPhone. Is this akin to idolatry?

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When next using your iPhone, think about the applications on offer: Is there a Torah text I can download to read on my train journey home?

Answer: Any material obsession has its dangers. Our sages say, “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.” (Avot 4:1). New and better items, be they cars, clothes, games, iPods, etc., may offer momentary satisfaction, but they cannot provide sustained meaning and fulfillment in life.

However, material things can in many circumstances be harnessed for positive self-growth. Judaism is not a religion that believes in eschewing physicality, living like a hermit or joining a monastery. Nor does it believe spiritual thoughts and religious expression should be confined to the synagogue. To the contrary: The world is there for us to engage with, for us to bring Godliness into all aspects of our lives.

A story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was the great defender of his people, able to see the good in every Jew and in every situation. He once saw a man greasing the wheels of his cart whilst wearing tallit and t’fillin. “What a wonderful people we are!” he said, “Even when greasing his wheels, a Jew still thinks of God!”

A verse in Proverbs says, “In all your ways know Him” (Prov. 3:6), and even material things like cars and technological gadgets can be part of your religious journey.

Next time you take your car for a drive, think to yourself: What mitzvot opportunities does my car present me with? Can I use it to offer a ride to someone else? Can I use it to take me to a lesson?

Similarly, when next using your iPhone, think about the applications on offer: Is there a Torah text I can download to read on my train journey home? Is there a call I can make to a friend who is in need? And how about listening to Jewish music and singing along?

The issue is not one of idolatry. It is how the material item fits in to your entire world-view.

Why Does the Current Hebrew Month Have Two Names?

The full name of the current Hebrew month is Mar-Cheshvan, and the abbreviated version is Cheshvan.

My professor of Semitic Studies was of the view that Mar-Cheshvan is linguistically a mixed-up version of an original Babylonian name, yerach sh’mini, which means “the eighth month” in Hebrew. If you count the months starting with Nisan it works out that Tishri is the seventh month, which is how the Torah describes it, and Mar-Cheshvan is the eighth.

One tradition however says that because the month has no festivals or even

According to Rav Robert Miller, the Great Flood  started in Mar Cheshvan.

According to Rav Robert Miller, the Great Flood started in Mar Cheshvan.

fasts it was mar “bitter.” This is said to explain why the name has become literally Bitter Cheshvan.

The original Biblical Hebrew name for the eighth month was Bul, “rain showers,” (I Kings 6:38) as Cheshvan is when the winter rains begin. One view says that the phrase mar mid’li, “a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40:15) may have contributed to the modern name of the month.