Hellenism Then and Now – Impeding the Synthesis

“Vechoshech zu malchus Yavan … Choshech refers to the empire of Yavan, who darkened the eyes of Yisrael with their decrees. They told them, ‘Write on the horn of an ox that you have no portion in the G-d of Yisrael.’” [Bereishis Rabbah, 2:5]

Chazal describe the era of Galus Yavan in terms of darkness, in which the oppressors compelled Klal Yisrael to declare their lack of connection to the G-d of Yisrael. What was unique about this era which caused Chazal to characterize it as darkness? How was it different from other exiles in which Klal Yisrael were persecuted at the hands of tyrants? What can we learn from it to help us resist falling into the pitfalls of its clutches in our generation?

Harav Lipa Geldwerth, shlita, Rav of Kahal Kol Torah and Maggid Shiur in Yeshiva Torah Temimah, shared his unique historical and hashkafic perspective with Hamodia in honor of Chanukah.

What was the historical background for the conquest of the Yevanim?

Hellenism, or what historians refer to as Hellenistic Judaism, is described by Chazal as a unique exile in the chronicles of our nation’s history. During this period, our nation suffered not only from physical persecution, but underwent a challenge to their identity, as the enemy attempted to alter their essence by controlling their lives, and by endeavoring to nullify their distinctive status, their exceptionalism as the Am HaTorah, and consequently their intimate relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. An examination of the decrees and methods of the Yevanim, and the effect it had on the multitudes, reveals how they created a cataclysmic chasm that permeated Klal Yisrael, and only through the light of the nes of the pach shemen — if you will — were we able to see our way back through the darkness that enveloped us.

The first recorded direct interaction between the Greek empire and our nation was the meeting between Shimon Hatzaddik and Alexander Mokdon (the Great), as told in Yoma (69a). We should bear in mind that Alexander the Great, in addition to his enormous military and political power, was a student of Aristotle, himself a student of Plato, who in turn was a pupil of Socrates. Their chochmah and culture — as repugnant as they were in the eyes of Chazal — were immensely significant — as implied in “yaft Elokim leYefes” (Bereishis, 9:27), and it was this culture that they tried to impose in all the lands of their conquest.

This meeting, in which Alexander actually paid tribute to Shimon Hatzaddik, may have been the first highlighted interaction between the nations, but due to the tzidkus of Shimon Hatzaddik, no invasion or pervasion occurred. But as time moved on, the conquering Greek armies who succeeded Alexander did take control of the region, and with it came not only military control, but indeed an invasion of the land, and an intrusion into the nucleus of our nation.

In what aspect was the galus of Yavan different from the other galuyos that Klal Yisrael experienced?

While previous persecutions such as the exile to Bavel, whose apparent, main design was military conquest, or later in Persia, where Haman’s scheme was the Amaleiki-Hitleristic absolute eradication of the nation entirely, Yavan, on the other hand, would tolerate our survival, but only by having our identity reconstituted by their own Greek/Hellenistic culture. That reformation proved so powerful a draw that the ripples pervaded the character of the nation to its core.

If we examine the various gezeiros imposed upon us by the Yevanim, the common thread is that they wished to intrude in our lives to the point that we would be forced to live as a subset within their culture. How did this come about? History tells us that after Alexander died without leaving behind any progeny, his empire was divided among his generals. Ptolemy ruled in Egypt, while Seleucos, of whom Antiochus was a descendant, ruled the northern territory in Syria. As it developed into a major commercial region, the local societies adapted the culture of the rulers. The language, philosophy, and sciences of the Greeks became engrained into the mindsets and behaviors of the inhabitants.

Yet, with respect to Klal Yisrael, the Yevanim were not satisfied with a gradual influx. They demanded a revolutionary process, as manifested in the carefully chosen decrees which they imposed on us. These were designed to alter the essential character of Klal Yisrael.

Let us examine some of the better known ones, as well as some of the less familiar, and we will discover that it was not random, cruel domination, but coercion for a well-plotted cause.

Chazal mention that the Yevanim were gozer on Shabbos, chodesh and milah. These three areas were targeted because of their most critical character. They were looking to imprint their culture on the masses. Banning milah is attacking kedushas haadam, eliminating Shabbos is an assault on kedushas hachaim, and canceling Chodesh — our luach, our Yamim Tovim, is targeting kedushas hazman. All this violates the ruach, to remove the spirit. They knew what they wished to accomplish and went after it.

The Rambam in Iggeres Teiman mentions that one of the gezeiros of Antiochus was that no door to a Jewish home may be closed, to allow for surveillance, in making sure Yidden were not fulfilling their mitzvos. It was a police state. Indeed, one of the gezeiros was aimed at the kallos (brides) — as the Rambam writes in the beginning of Hilchos Chanukah that the Greeks extended their hands and invaded their money and daughters. All this was done to sadistically defile them, to destroy the institution of marriage.

It is deeper than the obvious oppression. Yavan wanted to destroy anything that was personal and intimate to Klal Yisrael. We find that Ptolemy coerced the Chachamim to translate the Torah into Greek. This was not just some random act, as we see Chazal in Megillas Taanis say that it resulted in three days of darkness as on the day the egel was erected, which indicates its extraordinary severity. One can understand this because since the Torah is the kesubah between the Ribbono shel Olam and Klal Yisrael, as it says in Midrash Eichah (3:7), one is interceding between the chassan and the kallah, so to say, once again, which is the greatest invasion of human life.

Then, their assault on the Beis HaMikdash was also to further this goal. The Mishnah in Maseches Middos (2:3) states that there were 13 ruptures made in the soreg, a low fence that enclosed the Har HaBayis, by the Yevanim, that was repaired by the Chashmona’im. The Rosh tells us that this soreg was built to serve as a mechitzah and to transform the Har HaBayis into a reshus hayachid for Shabbos. The Yevanim purposely breached this mechitzah in order to turn our reshus hayachid into a reshus harabbim, which was an intrusion into the very relationship with Hashem.

This may very well be one of the underlying meanings of the Midrash that say choshech — darkness — is Yavan, because they blackened the eyes of the Yidden with their gezeiros. The decrees they cite are not the above, but that they demanded that the Yidden inscribe on the horn of an ox “kisvu lachem al keren hashor she’ein lachem cheilek b’Elokei Yisrael.” Write down that you no longer have this special relationship with Hashem. This is the choshech of Yavan. It is not simply name-calling, but rather the definition of the strategy of Yavan to sever the unique — zivug — connection between Klal Yisrael and the Ribbono shel Olam. Regarding the “kesubah, the Torah, it is no longer exclusive, since it is now in Greek; regarding the greater “home” of Klal Yisrael, the Beis HaMikdash, the fence that defines the intimacy is down, regarding the individual bayis, the home, the door is now wide open, they have access to all; we were in the street if you will, b’reshus harabbim. (The Sfas Emes and the Tiferes Yerucham says that the response is Ner Chanukah at the opening to the general reshus harabbim. You brought your darkness to us, we once again open the door and bring our light to the darkened outside.)

All of these intrusions are most tragically epitomized in the gezeirah in violating the kallah, the singular relationship is invaded, the stain is there. We have separated between you and Hashem, and you no longer have the special chelek with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. You are no different from us. Now there is nothing to stop you from becoming one of us. This invasion was extraordinary. Initially, they were “successful” in their campaign.

So what was the salvation?

The turning point was the pach shemen. As we know, the Chacham Tzvi and Pnei Yehoshua explain that technically, al pi halachah, they may not have needed to light the Menorah, davka, from shemen that was tahor, since tumah hutra b’tzibbur and, under the circumstances, they were permitted to use shemen that was not tahor. Yet, HaKadosh Baruch Hu made the nes to show that the old chibah, the old love and bond that exists between Klal Yisrael and Hashem was restored.

Not everyone was swept up in this aspect of the victory. However, it is always that small circle of believers who preserve the embers of Yiddishkeit and allow us to rebuild the everlasting relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam.

In which ways are our present challenges similar to those that existed bayamim haheim, and how do we formulate our own battle plan to overcome them?

The key element that creates such danger is synthesis, meaning when Yiddishkeit has a koach achar me’urav bo, there is another force that creates the culture of the Yid.

Many ethnic groups identify themselves by hyphenated names: There are Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, and the list goes on. Their ethnicity becomes an adjective. Not so the term “American Jews.” The ethnicity remains a noun.

In that sense, we must realize that we dare not become, as some streams have, mere Jewish-Americans who have allowed our heritage, our identity, to become faint echoes of an archaic past.

Rather we are American Jews. When we wake up each morning, the first thing we should realize is that we are Yidden, and everything that follows throughout the day is our levush, which the geography and climate demand.

This, indeed, is a great challenge in our days, since, just as we mentioned concerning the Yevanim, we are living in a reshus harabbim. The benevolent and accepting “melting pot” of America is a marvelous democratic condition which offers opportunities and rights. It dare not — and was not intended to — dilute the essence of one’s religious and spiritual being. This is what we need to devote our attention to in order to preserve the chibah rishonah with which we were endowed.

In the last two centuries, Klal Yisrael has been faced with this great nisayon of synthesis, where the maskilim and their ilk have synthesized other ideals and cultures into what they still refer to as “Judaism.” They can play with the percentages of this mixture, but the bottom line is that they have synthesized outside culture into their very core beliefs. Authentic Yiddishkeit has through the ages remained, and must remain, untainted by any synthesis of other “isms.” Our interface with the prevalent surrounding cultures must remain as a levush, which we use to travel through life as a loyal, law-abiding, appreciative citizen; who, by retaining one’s essence as an untainted Yid, in no way proves disloyal; on the contrary, from a larger perspective the quilted patch is strengthened.

Let’s make no mistake. When a Rav gathers information from experts, such as a doctor, or engineer, in order to form his opinion on how to deal with a particular matter, this is not synthesis, but rather the incorporation of facts into his knowledge. Synthesis, on the other hand, is when equal weight is given to other ideals as if they run side by side with Torah, and improve that which we — chalilah — were formerly lacking. They are appended to Torah and, by definition, dilute it. Above all, we must be mindful: We dare not allow tampering with our true identity and Torah-true definition. This requires constant vigilance and delicate balance as we continue to walk on the tightrope of galus. n