Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hellenists or the Maccabees – Which side are we Open to?

The story of Chanukah is well known and beloved by all. It is a thrilling tale of the fight of the Jews against the Syrian-Greek oppressors, who oppressed us and tried to take our religion away. The heroic Maccabees fought the military occupation and miraculously won. Upon entering the Temple they found only one completely pure flask of oil and it lasted for eight days. Accordingly, we light candles, eat latkes, spin dreidels, give some gifts, say Al Hanissim, and . . . that's about it. To quote a popular formula regarding all Jewish Holidays, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat.”

Of course, our Sages found far more depth in the story, and there is much commentary about why they instituted this longest of Jewish Holidays (There are really only seven days of Pesach, and Succot & Shmini Atzeret are separate holidays). It is a Yom Tov that is full of meaning and relevance to those who take the time to look a little bit below the surface. To illustrate, we really need go no further than the Rambam's famous formulation “The Mitzvah of Chanukah is exceedingly beloved חביבה היא עד מאוד" (Laws of Chanukah 2:14). Surely the Rambam was not referring to latkes and dreidels, but pointing to something far more important.

If one looks then at the sub-text of the story, it is clear that the main message of Chanukah that is important to us is not centered on the struggle between the Jews and the Syrian-Greeks. There were many military battles between the Jews and their neighbors (fought by the Shoftim, Kings, etc) that are not eternally memorialized with a Holiday. Rather, the struggle that made Chanukah eternally important was the battle between two groups within the Jewish people: The mainstream Jews and the Hellenists.

The Hellenists felt that the mainstream Jews were backward, stuck in the past, close-minded to all the wonderful new ideas that Grecian culture represented, which were in fact amazing and mesmerizing. Perhaps no other nation in the history of Mankind has so influenced the art, poetry, architecture, math, science, government, theater, philosophy, and sports of the world as did Greece. To be open to Greek culture was to be modern, progressive, in step with the times, and current with the latest and greatest notions of ethics, morality and freedom. How much more exciting was it to subscribe to this great new modern culture than to the (at the time) over 1,000 year old dusty Judaism! If you were serious about being a modern Jew – you wished to be a Hellenist!

The Hellenists ultimately broke completely with Torah and tradition, and openly maligned and rebelled against all that was Holy to the Jewish people and Torah values. They became allies of the Greeks in defiling the Holy Temple and abusing the Torah, and engaged in activities such as reversing their circumcision, eating pork, bowing to idols and even became self-hating enough to side with the enemies of Israel. Hellenism threatened to annihilate the Jewish world through assimilation in ways tyrants tried but could not do by force, as they succeeded in influencing between one third and one half of the entire Jewish people to join them.

Although the Maccabees won the battle against the Hellenists in the Chanukah story, it is questionable whether they won the long term war. The problem of Hellenism continued throughout Jewish history until our day, albeit in different forms and under different names. The basic premises of the Hellenists were later adapted by the Saducees, later by the Karaites, and closer to our time, by Reform. Although there were clear differences between these groups, the common themes of an over-emphasis on assimilating with the predominant culture, the negating of the primacy of traditional Torah values, the denigration of the authority of the Sages in determining Jewish law, and the self-hating shame with which they looked at the parts of Torah and Halacha that they found distasteful are very clear.

I took a particular interest this year in trying to understand how Hellenism began. Most sources point to the very good relations that were established between Alexander the Great and Shimon HaTzaddik as a starting point. Although it brought much good to live under the benign rule of a friendly government, there were those who were overly impressed by the allure of Grecian culture as above, and began measuring their values, including their Torah values, by what was consistent with the new, modern, progressive, “scientific” ways of thinking, instead of having Torah and Halacha remain the yardstick by which to measure how much of secular values were appropriate.

Many of the early Hellenists did not outright reject the Torah and Halacha . . . they merely wished to modernize it and bring it up to contemporary standards. They did away with what was no longer in vogue, or politically correct, and emphasized new innovations that were in keeping with Greek, as well as some Jewish, values. They were an amalgam of Torah and modernity, refusing to be bound by precedent, and focused more on what they perceived would be relevant to the young, searching Jew.

Of course the story of Chanukah is a story of the rejection of those notions – of the idea that Judaism had to bend to the times and to be in step with Western values; that the Torah and Halachah had to be remade to that conform to modernity. By contrast, the Maccabees stood for Torah as the golden standard to measure all new ideas. We must not seek to conform Torah to modernity; modernity must fit with Torah values, or be rejected.

This lesson of Chanukah is thus as timeless as it is vital.  We must forever be on guard of knowing when, to what degree, and how much we can take in contemporary values, as we strive to forever keep the Torah as our golden standard, as our light in the darkness of the surrounding world. Particularly so for those of us who do not take a blanket rejectionist stance vis a vis' the secular world we live in, the light of Chanukah reminds us to keep Torah as our ultimate standard by which all else must be judged.

This brings me to a painful topic; the developing schism between those in the Orthodox world who have traditional respect for the Halachic process and precedent on the one hand, and those, particularly those associated with Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and Yehivat Maharat, who unfortunately seem to feel that it is their sacred duty to break with tradition on the other hand.   Their modus operandi is to espouse Liberalism as the highest value, and to twist the Halacha to fit their pre-conceived objectives by making any possible argument that they are still within the Halachic process, relying on minority positions that have clearly been rejected by most Poskim, or by new readings into fundamental matters of faith that will “prove” their contentions. As long as they can be seen in the eyes of their adoring public as progressive, and to be upholding the causes of Liberalism against the outmoded traditionalists, they will not stop from creating new Halacha and rejecting traditional norms.

And yet, they bristle when their fealty to Orthodoxy is called into question.

Let me clear – I am not accusing practitioners of Open Orthodoxy of being Hellenists – yet. The leadership of those institutions is made up of passionate Jews, some of whom I have met and know, who consider themselves deeply committed to Torah and Yirat Shamayim. I contend, nevertheless, that they have gone much too far on the slippery slope that is leading away from Orthodoxy, and that if they do not reverse direction immediately, it may be too late before they lead thousands of our sisters and brothers towards the road that can only lead to a modern form of Hellenism.  There is much written on this topic that I am in full agreement with . . . please see here, here, and here for starters.

May the leaders of Orthodox world find the way to continue to proudly represent traditional Jewish values while engaging with the contemporary world and the many Jews that are enmeshed in it, and to stand firm in the face of the modern-Day Hellenists that plague our communities.

Happy Chanukah

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