Monday, November 29, 2004

Chanukkah Redux: Hellenism Today

One of the courses I teach is called 'Mo'ade Yisrael: Talmud, Halakhah u-Minhag.' Various other instructors approach the a subject matter in different ways. I set myself two goals. First, I try to show that the holidays are far more sophisticated, intellectually and experientialy respectable than the students think. This is a real challenge, because the holidays have been 'dumbed down' in contemporary Israeli awareness to the extent that (if people know anything about them), they amount to infantile ideas and very fattening foods. [This course is for students without religious High School background. Truth to tell, however, the sophistication of the graduates of religious High Schools, Yeshivot and Ulpanot also leaves alot to be desired.] The other goal is to show how the practical observance of the mitzvot of the holidays embodies the lofty ideas that are developed in class. In this connection, I introduce them to the halakhot of the holidays, since most only have a very hazy awareness of what to do (and they really do want to know).

Those of you who read this blog (4,000+ at this writing) know that I try to integtrate Jewish History into my classes. You also know, that I"m a big believer in the existence of patterns in history. As the French say: Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same). Hanukkah is a great case in point. This was borne out by my class last week.

I was describing the religious-intellectual struggle among the Jews of Judea before the decrees of Antiochus IV in 167 BCE. Basically, the community was divided into three, uneven, groups.

There were the radical Hellenizers, whose advocated total adoption of Hellenistic life and values. They argued that one must go with progress and enlightenment. As IMacc. 1, 11 reports: 'In those days went there out of Israel wicked men, who persuaded many, saying, Let us go and make a covenant with the heathen that are round about us: for since we departed from them we have had much sorrow '

Then there were the Hasidim ('pious ones') who absolutely rejected anything that had to do with Greek culture. These two were minority groups, though the Hellenizers were rich, powerful, well-connected celebrities who exerted influence far beyond their numbers.

The overwhelming majority of Jews were, for wont of a better word, 'moderate Hellenists.' These made up a broad spectrum of variations. However, they had in common the idea that one could adopt alot of Hellenistic culture without losing one's Jewish religious and cultural integrity. They were the 'silent majority,' who revolted when Antiochus (at the instigation of the radicals) outlawed Judaism.

After I presented this, my students were uncharacteristically silent. Why? Because they realized that this represents the fundamental breakdwn of the Jewish population of contemporary Israel. There is a hard-core, often virulent, anti-Jewish cadre that inhabits the media, the universities and the literati. Politically, they are represented by Yahad and Shinui. They are devoted to the de-judaization of Israel in order to become part of the larger 'Liberal, European West,' which is the direct heir of Hellenism. The preach cultural assimilation for 'our own good.'

Then there are the haredim and haredim-le'umi'im who reject the West in total. No university, no secular studies, nothing. Together these two are matche at about 30% of the population.

Then there are the rest of us, 70% of the whole. These people (traditional Jews, sentimental Jews, most national religious Jews) believe (like the moderate hellenists and Samuel Butler) that 'extremes are alone logical, and they are always absurd.'

How will this play itself out? Well, a friend of mine who's a noted historian of the Hasmonean period told me once: 'Antiochus rules, Menelaus has taken over the Temple and Mattathias has no yet appeared on the scene.'


Anonymous said...

And here I was thinking I was the last Israeli walking on what the Rambam called "Hashveel hazahav... haderech haemza'i". Nice to know I'm among the [silent] majority. :-)


Jeffrey said...

Cheer up. There are alot more of us than you think. We just never get in the paper or on the TV and the radio.

Anonymous said...

There's no such word in English as "alot." There's "allot," which means to apportion, and "a lot"--two words.