When Hellenism Freezes Over

It seems to have gone by quickly this year, this already being the last night of Chanukah on the heels of a Nor’Easter that barreled up the Jersey Coast less than 24 hours ago. The silver lining to the “COVID-ic” way we’ve conducted ourselves has been the preternatural sharing of lighting candles with the kids and grandkids from a comfortable distance. The calm before the storm afforded the opportunity to get out to Seasons in Lakewood and stock up on some Kosher goodies, Miriam sporting her mask well-suited to the season.

I splurged and picked up a copy of the Yated Ne’eman newspaper, Chanukah edition, as well as the Special Chanukah Issue of Ami Magazine. The first page of the newspaper showcased the editorial, Hope & Change. In it, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz makes the point that the miracle of Chanukah took place during the era of the second temple or Bais Hamikdosh, at which time many Jews acclimated to the Greek lifestyle, the majority having become Hellenized. With their victory over the Greeks, the Chashmonaim (led by Matisyahu and his son, Judah Macabbee) motivated the Misyavnim to return to the practices of their grandparents, recreating their lives and regaining control of their own destiny.

The article that caught my eye in Ami Magazine was “Putting Together the Story of Chanukah“. It is a feature in the issue, authored by Lawrence H. Schiffman, Director of the Global Network for Advance Research in Jewish Studies at NYU and former Vice-Provost of Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University (unfortunately with no online link that I can provide). Professor Schiffman begins: “Ask any Jewish child who the hero of Chanukah is, and he or she will automatically respond: “Yehudah the Maccabee”. But how do we know this?”

עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעוֹת וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמוֹת שֶׁעָשִׂיתָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה

For the miracles and for the wonders and for the mighty deeds and for the salvations and for the victories that you wrought for our ancestors in their days and in this day.

בִּימֵי מַתִּתְיָהוּ בֶּן יוֹחָנָן כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל חַשׁמוֹנַאי וּבְנָיו כְּשֶׁעָמְדָה מַלְכוּת יָוָן הָרְשָׁעָה עַל עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַשְׁכִּיחָם תּוֹרָתֶךָ וּלְהַעֲבִירָם מֵחֻקֵּי רְצוֹנֶךָ

In the days of Mattathias son of Yohanan the high priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons, when the evil kingdom of Greece stood against your people Israel in order to make them forget your Torah and violate your laws.

… But no mention of Judah the Maccabee as the central hero! So where Professor Schiffman asks, is the source material? The answer he provides is that sometime around the year 100 BCE, a Jew in Eretz Yisrael, writing in Hebrew, set down a detailed account of the history of the Maccabean Revolt and of the Chashmonian dynasty that ruled over the land in the aftermath of the Jewish victory. The book is called 1 Maccabees. In fact, Wikipedia has a nice entry on this.

“Y” magazine, a less descript publication that comes bundled with Ami, contains an article by Yaakov Astor titled “From Hellenism to Liberalism” that lends further perspective to Chanukah. In Maccabeean times, classic Greek philosophy had taken the world by storm. Although Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the names that grab the headlines, the Greek philosopher that Rabbis found most challenging was Epicurus. It was Epicurus from whom the word “Apikores” derives, making it into the lexicon as an individual who is lax in observance of Jewish law. The recently published Oxford Handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism notes that this ancient Greek philosopher is often derided for materialism, hedonism, and denial of the immortality of the soul, despite the fact that he was a muse to Hobbes and Jefferson.

The real message of Chanukah, Astor surmises, is not about military prowess as much as it is about the spiritual might of the Jewish people to stand firm against the undertow of Hellenism. And at the root of Hellenism’s demise was its false promise of universalism. Such ideologies invariably fail because one cannot force ideas, either culturally or physically, upon others. Today, Astor writes, universalism is largely taken up by the mantle of Liberalism. This is not your father’s liberalism that was in the waters surrounding Ellis Island. This is the diversity movement that nurtures Antifa, BLM, cancel culture, and doxing, ranging from verbal intimidation to outright violence. Hellenism is freezing over.

About Leonard J. Press, O.D., FAAO, FCOVD

Developmental Optometry is my passion as well as occupation. Blogging allows me to share thoughts in a unique visual style.
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