The Ḥanukah Story Then and Now: Hellenism and Forced Assimilation
This year, Ḥanukah begins the night before Thanksgiving, an unusual occurrence. Typically, Ḥanukah begins in December; all too often it is treated by the larger culture as “the Jewish Christmas,” with all of the commercialized trappings at shopping malls this season. The problem is that the real meaning of Ḥanukah is diametrically opposed to what secular American culture has turned it into.
The Ḥanukah story begins with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Near East, spreading Greek culture across what had been the Persian Achaemenid Empire, stretching from Greece and Egypt in the west to present-day Uzbekistan and Pakistan in the east. This region was later divided into several competing empires that continued to spread Greek culture throughout the region. At first, the Land of Israel fell under the rule of the Ptolemaic Empire based in Egypt, changing hands several times before coming under the control of the Seleucid Empire, which controlled present-day Syria, Iraq, Iran, and part of Turkey. It was during this period that the Torah was translated into Greek, known as the Septuagint.
We tend to think of Ancient Greece as the cradle of civilization, spreading science, art, and culture across the ancient world. While this is certainly part of the story, there was a darker side to Hellenistic Greek civilization. Hellenistic (and later, Roman) culture allowed for the exposing of unwanted newborn children, including girls and those with disabilities, to be pecked at by vultures. Hellenistic culture often elevated pederasty, relations between adult men and teenage boys, to a higher level than marriage. Hellenists idolized the physical body, with nudity a central feature of both the public bathhouse and gymnasium. And being a nudity-centered culture, perhaps no other civilization idolized the male foreskin and condemned circumcision as much as the Hellenists (and their Roman successors).
This set up a cultural conflict between Judaism and Hellenism. Many Jews voluntarily assimilated into Hellenistic culture to varying degrees, adopted Greek names, did business in nude bathhouses, participated in gymnasia, worshipped Greek deities, and even attempted to undo their circumcisions in an operation known as epispasm. Around 173 BCE, these Jewish Hellenists (mityavnim) gained power in Jerusalem. The more militant Jewish Hellenists, led by the High Priest Menelaus, allied themselves with the Seleucid emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and together persecuted Jews who kept to Jewish tradition.
Antiochus issued decrees in an attempt to compel Hellenization and wipe out Judaism. He forbade on pain of death observance of the Sabbath, of Rosh Ḥodesh (the first day of each month, which determines the Jewish calendar and holidays), Torah study, and circumcision. He also ordered that pigs be sacrificed in the Beit ha-Mikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem, which he re-dedicated to Zeus instead, and mandated that everyone worship the Greek deities or be executed. Many Jews were martyred for refusing to commit idolatry or keeping mitzvot, including circumcising their sons and not eating pig meat.
The Maccabean revolt began in 167 BCE in Modi’in, northwest of Jerusalem, when a Seleucid official attempted to force Matityahu, a kohen (Jewish priest), to offer a pagan pig sacrifice. When Matityahu refused, a Jewish Hellenist willingly came forward to offer the pig. Matityahu then slayed both the Seleucid official and the man who was about to offer the pig, turned to the assembled crowd and announced, “Follow me, all of you who are for G-d’s law and stand by the covenant.” (1 Maccabees 2:27)
To make a long story short, Matityahu and his five sons fled to the Judean hills and organized a successful guerilla war against the mighty Seleucid Empire. In late 165 BCE, the Beit ha-Mikdash was liberated and, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the Maccabees found just one flask of oil for the menorah, which should have lasted a single day, yet a miracle happened and it lasted eight days. This miracle represents the spiritual victory over forced Hellenization.
It would be years before the Maccabees finally defeated the Seleucid Empire and obtained a measure of peace. The Hasmonean dynasty would themselves become Hellenized, eventually leading to their downfall at the hands of the Roman Empire a century later. Yet the victory over forced Hellenization endures to this day. The Maccabean revolt is the first recorded example in human history of a minority successfully fighting against an intolerant majority culture determined to wipe out their religious practices and compel assimilation. Had the Maccabees not succeeded, the monotheistic idea would have been extinguished, and the religious history of the world would have been vastly different.
The increasing secularization of America—and even more so, Europe—is making contemporary civilization resemble the Hellenistic societies of 2200 years ago. While we achieve ever more progress in science and technology, our moral values are increasingly resembling Hellenistic ideology. They had a religiously syncretistic society where people were expected to worship others’ deities; we have a society where children are told that mommy is of one religion, daddy is another, and you can be some of both. They practiced infanticide to dispose of unwanted babies; we use abortion to the same ends. They practiced pederasty; we may reject relations between adults and teenagers but practice something even the Greeks could not fathom, namely same-sex marriage. They pranced around naked in public; we see similar behavior today at a pride parades. They wound up persecuting people whose religious practices dissented from their polytheistic and body-centered culture; we are now doing the same with the Obamacare HHS contraceptive mandate.
And perhaps most dramatically, the Hellenists of yore were militant “intactivists” who attacked the biblical commandment of circumcision as “genital mutilation” and sought to eradicate it. They are back with the same old antisemitic arguments from 22 centuries ago, with a certain number of self-hating assimilated Jews once again leading the charge to ban the mitzvah (examples here and here). Intactivists have taken center stage in many pride parades across the United States and Canada, marching under banners that say “Foreskin Pride,” and “His Penis, His Choice.” Some parade the body part in question naked at these pride parades, while others parade in male genital costumes or white suits with immodest blood stains in the crotch area. Others organize naked bike rides through heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. And many promote “foreskin restoration,” just like the Hellenists.
From draconian legislation in Massachusetts proposing 14-year prison terms for both parents and mohelim, to a ban on the ballot in San Francisco, to numerous measures across Europe, the danger of the intactivist movement to religious liberty—and not just Jews and Muslims—should be self-evident. And one week before Ḥanukah, they came to Hartford and other northeastern state capitals to promote the criminalization of brit milah. And like 2200 years ago, they will not go unchallenged. Together, we will stand up against this evil.
This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant between Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of your seed… And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant. —Genesis 17:10-12, 14