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    Chanukah and Hellenism: How relevant was Antiochus Epiphanes?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 25 November, 2021.

    The Jewish calendar is full of festivals. Some are beacons of rarefied spirituality, like Rosh HaShanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Some are historical commemorations featuring ethical tenets, like Passover, which marks the Hebrew exodus from Egypt and emphasises the universal right to freedom. Others celebrate historical events and seem too light-hearted to be taken too seriously, though they have a massive popular appeal.

    An example is Chanukah, an eight-day festival which commences this year on Sunday evening, 28 November. Because it generally comes in December, it has even been dubbed the Jewish Christmas. Its history focusses on the Maccabean struggle for freedom of religion in the second century BCE against the idolatry of the Syrian Greeks ruled by Antiochus Epiphanes. The Christmas connection is purely calendrical coincidence, though early in my pulpit career it caused me some embarrassment.

    As minister to the Bayswater Synagogue in West London, I had organised a children’s celebration in the synagogue hall. We kindled the Chanukah candles, played Chanukah games, and sang Chanukah songs, but then came the guest artiste, the daughter of a member of the congregation. Trying to get the children involved in the festivities, she urged them to sing along with her the words of the song, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” — a rather inappropriate number for an orthodox synagogue. I don’t recall my exact words, but I quickly persuaded her to move on to Ma’oz Tzur, the Chanukah hymn. Its Hebrew words roughly translate into English: “Fortress, Rock of our salvation, To You we offer our praise: quell, we pray, the despoiling foe, rise and save Your nation!”

    I think the year was 1961. The Chanukah issue of the London Jewish Chronicle, published that year on 1 December, carried an article by Raphael Loewe, who later became Professor of Hebrew at University College, London. Loewe’s subject was, “Did Greece Harm Judaism?” He questioned the widespread view that Chanukah was merely a fun festival or a populist celebration of heroism. He argued that it was a serious moment for national reflection on virtues and values.

    Loewe brushed aside Antiochus as an egotistical nobody who played for time for political reasons, hoping to prevent his realm from being engulfed by the Roman empire. Yes, the people of Judea found themselves caught up in the struggle, but the real problem was neither the political preferences of the Jews nor the imperialist pretensions of Antiochus, nor even the socio-cultural tug-of-war between Judaism and Hellenism. According to Loewe, the two societies and cultures were not such implacable enemies as people imagined. The choice was how much or how little Hellenism to adopt.

    Was Hellenism something new? Unlikely: Jews had long been tempted by other civilisations. Was it that Greek culture promoted idolatry? The Bible was full of idolatrous episodes, albeit recorded with distaste. Was it that human characteristics were ascribed to the Greek pantheon? Again, that’s nothing new. Judaism had long been concerned about anthropomorphism, which is to say, human terminology applied to God (the arm of God, the hand of God, the mouth of God) — though the biblical version of anthropomorphism was not so crass and vulgar.

    Was immorality the problem? It was not only the Greeks who indulged in immoral orgies or unethical excesses, and the Hebrew prophets had been attacking moral lapses for centuries. Was the problem a lack of ethics? The fact is that Greek ethical teaching at its best was highly impressive and had its commonalities with Jewish ethics. Was it that Hellenism threatened Jewish nationalism? The truth is that Jews had been fending off the allurements of other ethnicities for generations.

    One of the problems was that Hellenism was the culture of the human figure which was penetrating Judea. What attracted the Judeans was not so much the grandeur of Greek intellectuality but a cynical, pleasure-loving form of indulgence that appealed to the physical body and felt alienated by the spiritual dimensions emphasised by Judaism. The more you read the cynicism of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the more you see how great was the allure of Hellenism. No wonder some pagan-minded Jews were in two minds when the traditionalist Maccabees prevailed and the Temple altar in Jerusalem was cleansed and rededicated for the worship of the unseen God.

    Loewe saw the problem as ideological. He thought “a dramatic danger signal” had shocked the Jews and challenged the strict Jewish sense of the nature of God. After all, the ancient Greeks liked to be surrounded by statues and pictures, and they admired physical handsomeness, bodily exercise, sport, and sculpture. Judaism saw all this as an example of avodah zarah, forbidden graven images. What Judaism valued was not the physical man but the non-physical God, not avodah zarah — outward appearance — but avodah shebalev, inner virtue. What mattered was not looks but books. As the Psalmist says, “God is not impressed with the legs of a man” (Psalm 147:10). What mattered with God was the mind, heart, and soul.

    Solomon Schonfeld wrote in his book The Universal Bible that the Greeks esteemed beauty as an end in itself, whereas Jews believed in a higher ideal — beauty for goodness’ sake. The Jewish sages say that when Scripture speaks of Yefet (Japheth) dwelling in the tents of Shem (Genesis 10:27), it is making a statement that the beauty of Greece must not be allowed to overwhelm the ethics of Israel. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth-century Jewish exegete, said that while Yefet beautified the world, Shem enlightened it. Judaism would not have appreciated what modern-day urban civilisation calls “temples of beauty”.

    Loewe was right to regard Antiochus as the chief enemy. He was right to see Antiochus as something of a largely irrelevant red herring. He was right to pinpoint the paganism that Antiochus symbolised, but he could have said more about the Greek adulation of art, since the Jewish objection was not to art itself but to how it reduced Divine truth from Revelation to Reason, making man, not God, the arbiter of accuracy. It has been said, “The altar was rededicated and so were the people.”

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