At the Heart of the Hanukkah Story is Jewish Chosenness

December 10, 2018 | Mark Gottlieb
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In Culture and Anarchy, the great Victorian thinker Matthew Arnold made much of the tension between “Hebraism,” based on law and morality, and “Hellenism,” based on freedom and creativity. Yet, although the historical backdrop to the holiday of Hanukkah does indeed rest largely on the struggle to preserve Judaism against Hellenization, the Hasmoneans didn’t actually reject the entirety of the Hellenic tradition. Mark Gottlieb writes:

[T]he notion that [the Maccabean revolt] was fundamentally a culture clash between Hebraism and Hellenism (a popular motif in Jewish discourse itself from the 1st century CE onwards) doesn’t quite capture the complex nature of the conflict. Importantly, such a view also contradicts the simple meaning of a well-known talmudic teaching—a gloss on Genesis 9:27—that encourages the creativity and beauty of Greek civilization to reside fruitfully within the monotheistic faith of Abraham’s children: “May the beauty of Japheth [ancestor of the Greeks] dwell in the tents of Shem [ancestor of the Hebrews].”

Instead, I would suggest that the crux of the conflict centered on Greek philosophy’s challenge to the election of Israel and its distinctive worldview, both expressed by, and a consequence of, the Torah. The Jerusalem Talmud gestures in this direction in the following cryptic statement: “The Greeks darkened the eyes of the Jews with their decrees, forcing the Jews to write on the horn of an ox: ‘We have no portion in the God of Israel.’”

By the time of the Hasmonean revolt in 167 BCE, most schools of Greek thought [had accepted] some notion of an Unmoved Mover or a Logos at the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being. [But a divine being] Who loved His creatures, let alone a particular people above all else, was simply scandalous. Israel, God’s firstborn child, had no place in the worldview of Hellas; this the rationalism of the Greeks could not abide. Hence, the persecution of traditionalist Jews (both by Israel’s enemies without and, especially, Israel’s enemies within) took the form of a forced confession: “We have no portion in the God of Israel.”

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