Ask the Rabbi….
Why blame the Greeks?
During World War II when Rabbi Jacob Danglow was visiting Jewish internees in a camp in Australia, he conducted a Chanukah service and innocently mentioned Jewish problems with the Greeks.
Unfortunately there were Greeks as well as Jews at that camp and a riot almost ensued. Such is the result of people misunderstanding what they hear!
However, it may be that too much is made of the supposed antagonism between Judaism and Greece.
The villain of the Chanukah story, King Antiochus, was not the first to introduce hellenism into Judea. All that he did was to be inept and provoke a crisis.
Among the Jews there were many, especially in the upper class establishment, who believed Judaism and hellenism could be successfully integrated, and indeed similar Jewish attempts to live in two cultures have punctuated Jewish history.
In the London Jewish Chronicle in December, 1961, Professor Raphael Loewe asks if Jews really knew what they had against Greek culture.
Idolatry? Biblical history was full of idolatrous episodes.
The human characteristics ascribed to the Greek gods? Judaism had its own problems with human descriptions of God.
Immorality? The Greeks did not invent orgies and excesses, and classical Greek ethical teaching was not unimpressive.
A perceived threat to Jewish national identity? Many Jews did not see it that way.
Loewe’s own view is that Jews were shocked at the representational art of the Hellenistic world which clearly contradicted the strict Jewish sense of the nature of God.
Another version of the same theory appears in the “Universal Bible” of Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who says the Greeks saw beauty as an end in itself, where Judaism believed in beauty for God’s sake.
The sages say that when the Torah speaks of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem (Gen. 10:27) it indicates that the beauty of Yefet (from “yafah”, beautiful) must be subject to the morality of Shem (the ancestor of Israel).
Samson Raphael Hirsch remarks that “Japheth (Greece) has ennobled the world aesthetically; Shem has enlightened it spiritually and morally”.
THE BOOKS OF MACCABEES
The Books of the Maccabees are not part of the Tanach.
They are rarely featured in synagogue services, nor are they a continuous narrative like the Books of Kings or Chronicles.
The First Book of Maccabees depicts a rising of faithful Jews against the oppressive Seleucid regime.
The Second Book paints a picture of a conflict between ideologies – a tug-of-war between Judaism and Hellenism.
The view of many modern scholars is that the struggle was not so much between Jews and outsiders, but between two camps within Judaism, those who stood for tradition and those who wanted more assimilation to Hellenistic thinking.
The traditionalists for their part refused to abandon the Torah and its practices such as circumcision and the dietary laws. Why the outsiders mixed in was in order to support the Hellenistic Jews against the traditionalists.
The Syrian Greeks came down hard on the traditional Jews, which was unusual for a regime that generally showed tolerance for the religious beliefs and practices of subject peoples.
Because the battle grounded had shifted, the Maccabees now had to contend not only with another internal Jewish group but with an external power, which turned the struggle into one for Jewish nationalism.
THE GAME IS UP
For all its carnival spirit, Chanukah is fundamentally religious.
It celebrates a basic principle of Jewish teaching – the belief in miracles.
True, some tend to regard miracles metaphorically, seeing them not so much as supernatural events but the surge of a miraculous human spirit of valour.
This is all very well, and it is quite likely that great events like Chanukah would never have happened without Maccabean heroism. Nonetheless, what the miraculous really means is the incursion of God into human history.
When all logic would argue that a cause is impossible and that the few who stand for justice will never prevail against the many, the miracle demonstrates that God is still in charge, and when the time is ready He acts.
The belief in miracles tells us that we must never despair. In the end God does not allow his world to be “hefker” – ownerless and out of control.
This, if we read the Chanukah story correctly, is why the sages in the Talmud play down the military victory, which represents the merely metaphorical concept of the miraculous, and emphasise (Shab. 21b) the little jar of oil, which is not a human deed but God Himself acting in history.
This is also why the major mitzvah of Chanukah is the kindling of the lights, expressing our faith and hope that the Almighty will bring the light of redemption to an often dark world.
Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.