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!


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