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Why did the Syrian Greeks hate the Jews?

No doubt, the conflict between the Maccabees and the Syria Greeks of the Chanukah story had a political dimension. The Jews wanted political independence while a ruler of the ancient world wanted complete hegemony. No revolutions. No independence movements. No chinks in the worldwide armor of a dictatorial empire. The Jews, “the few against the many” (as Chanukah’s Al HaNissim prayer puts it) defied this.

True enough. But if the ancient conflict was only political, neither the Greeks nor the Jews would have characterized it as perhaps the first clash of civilizations. The Greeks were offended that the ancient Jews would not embrace their gymnasia, with their worship of the naked human body; that the Jews had insisted on their own rites in their own temple.

The Jews were offended that the Greeks attempted to undermine the entire Jewish religion by banning three of the 613 commandments: rosh chodesh (the designation of the first of each Hebrew month), Shabbat and circumcision.

A question arises: In what sense did this very small number of Jewish practices threaten the viability of Judaism as a whole? Only one of these three practices appears in the Ten Commandments. Besides, there seems to be many other seminal Jewish practices, such as Judaism’s ethical teachings, or kashrut, or the entire Temple ritual. The Greeks did not focus on them.

The standard interpretation of the Greeks’ threefold ban is this:

1. Without rosh chodesh, the year-round Jewish calendar is undermined, since the dates of all Jewish holidays depend on the date of the first of every Jewish month — on rosh chodesh. For example, if there is no way to determine the first of the Hebrew month of Nisan, there is no way to determine the correct date of Passover, which begins on the 15th of Nisan. What would Judaism be like without Passover? What would be left of that which is uniquely Jewish without all of the other Jewish holidays?

2. Similarly, without Shabbat, the entire Jewish week would be undermined.

3. Without circumcision, individual Jewish identity would be undermined.

In a perverse way, the ancient Greeks were geniuses at figuring out how to kill Jewish civilization with a few deft decrees. The Greeks perfected hatred of Judaism.

An alternative, or perhaps the better word is complementary, interpretation of the threefold Greek ban is offered by Rabbi Yechiel Perr, dean of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, a noted authority on Jewish ethics and the author of a recent book on the Jewish holidays.

In one of his essays on Chanukah, Rabbi Perr observes: The ancient Greeks “advanced” the understanding and practice of idolatry. Earlier idols were animals, birds and various objects. The Greek pantheon of idols were full fledged human beings. What was the ultimate object of veneration? To the Greeks, it was the human being. To the Jews, it was G-d. This is as sharp a clash of civilizations as it can get. This is the root of the ultimate Greek hatred of the Jews — hatred of those who reject my gods.

We have certainly seen where this type of hatred has taken Western civilization, and its primary victims, the Jews, over the past 2,000 years. The world’s oldest hatred is rooted in the ancient Greek hatred of the Maccabees of the Chanukah story.

The clash of civilizations is reflected in the way the Jews commemorate the Chanukah story, not with a focus on the unlikely military victory, but with the emphasis on the Holy Temple’s menorah — the rededication of the Temple of G-d.

Specifically, Rabbi Perr observes:

1. Circumcision elicited hatred because the removal of the foreskin engraves in the very flesh of the Jewish human being the fundamental obligation to improve oneself. To grow spiritually and ethically. To surmount the temptations of life and transform oneself into a holy being. For the Greeks, the perfection of the human gods was a given. To the Greeks, circumcision contemptuously denied their idols and ideals of inherent human perfection. Hence, the Greeks banned circumcision.

2. Shabbat was deeply offensive to the ancient Greeks because the Jews’ periodic cessation from work redefined the human being as more than a self-centered creator. For Jews periodically to withdraw from human creativity demeaned the Greek ideal of man. Thus, we have again the Greek hatred of the Jewish ideal, of Shabbat, which is grounded in the the acknowledgement of a supernatural G-d, not of man, as the ultimate Creator.

3. Rosh chodesh reflects the Jewish acknowledgement of a reality above man. The Jews embrace a calendar punctuated by yearning to connect with a Source of meaning and joy higher than the human being alone can provide. This was the diametric opposite of the Greek ideal.

Rabbi Perr observes that when Copernicus discovered that the sun does not revolve around the earth —that man was not the center of the universe — this posed a radical challenge to the strictly human-focused worldview typical of the ancient Greeks and their philosophic successors.

But Copernicus’ scientific revolution posed no problem for the spiritual descendants of the Maccabees, who already well knew that man is not at the center. G-d is.

All this is captured in an otherwise mystifying midrash that has the Greeks ordering the Jews, “Write on an ox’s horn that Jews have no portion in the G-d of Israel.” What is the meaning of this metaphor?

The Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai, following their exodus from Egypt, made an idol in the form of an animal (the “golden calf”), which the Greeks took to be a conclusive accusation that the Jews conceded the validity of the Greek approach: there is no G-d. There is only man.

The midrash, however, characterizes the Greek order as “darkening the eyes of Israel (the Jewish people),” as a spiritual failure caused by the exile. The Greeks did not triumph over the Jewish worldview; they distorted a temporary Jewish failure and speciously declared it to be the Jewish concession to the Greek worldview.

Who was right? The Maccabees or the ancient Greeks?

Some 2,200 years later, the descendants of the Maccabees are still here to tell their side of the story. Not so the Greeks.

Copyright © 2021 by the Intermountain Jewish News

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com

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