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What’s It All About?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

guest author: RebGiraffe (aka BossGiraffe)

Chanukah is often presented as a black-and-white story. Like the Westerns we used to watch in the movies or on TV, it was the good guys vs. the bad guys. It may be easier to explain things that way. However, the reality was far more complex.

We get the impression that the Maccabean Revolt was an uprising of the patriotic Judeans against their tyrannical overlords, the Syrians. A band of guerilla fighters, led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, overcame the army of the Syrian Empire which controlled Judea during the second pre-Christian century, and we won our freedom.

This picture presents only part of the story. Another element—perhaps more significant and definitely more disturbing—is the fact that the fight was internal as well. Yes, I mean Jew vs. Jew.

When Alexander the Great conquered the known world in 333 BCE, he introduced Greek culture far and wide. That culture, called Hellenism, included the most advanced art, architecture, philosophy, etc. and spread widely.

Among the Jews of the time, there were many who found Hellenism enticing. They were drawn into the life of the gymnasium, which was much more than a place for athletics, but was akin to a university. Participating in the gymnasium presented challenges to Jews who wished to be loyal to their faith, however. Each gymnasium was dedicated to a Greek god, to whom offerings were made. Some of the athletic contests were held without benefit of clothing, which was not in accord with Jewish standards of modesty, and which also exposed Jews to ridicule because circumcision was viewed as barbaric mutilation by those who followed Greek culture. The desire to be part of Hellenistic society was so strong for many Jews that they were willing to offer sacrifices to idols and even to undergo a painful operation that would mask their circumcision (No…I am not making up this part!)

Remember the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt–the incident in the village of Mod’in? A band of Syrian soldiers had come to town, set up an altar to an idol and demanded that the local inhabitants bow down to the idol. It was a Jew who came forward and began to do so when Mattathias struck him down. Did you ever consider why the Jew was willing to offer the sacrifice? You might have assumed that it was due to his fear of the soldiers. More likely, he did it voluntarily because of his Hellenistic outlook, and this is what drew the ire of Mattathias. In other words, the Maccabees’ beef was not solely with the Syrian army, but also with their fellow Jews who were open to a Hellenistic approach to life.

We call such behavior assimilation, and it has been a serious problem in more recent times, as well. In the 19th century, there were many Jews who readily traded away Judaism, which they regarded as a holdover from the ghetto. A significant number even converted out in order to gain entry into the larger society.

So where do we—you and I–stand today? We live in the modern world. Are we today’s Hellenists?

Now, as in ancient times, matters are not so black-and-white. While some of our fellow Jews do live in a ghettoized environment and others have, indeed, left Judaism behind, the overwhelming majority of Jews live bi-culturally. We are modern people, and we are Jews…and we want the best of both. Balancing the two is not easy. In fact, it is quite difficult. But, that is where we stand. We must recognize that there are forces that push us away from active Jewish engagement. If we wish to remain Jews, we must assert our Jewish values.

Here’s a perfect example: Most of us give gifts as part of our celebration of Chanukah. While presenting children Chanukah gelt to play the dreidle game has been part of the holiday for generations, the more elaborate gift-giving is clearly a result of our encounter with the larger society in which we life. A good way to balance: Give gifts, if you like. But, for the 6th night of Chanukah, December 17, donate the value of the gifts you would ordinarily exchange (or the gifts themselves) to local or national organizations assisting the needy. At a time of severe unemployment, isn’t this the right thing to do?

Wishing you a bright Chanukah,


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