Having won a series of military victories worthy of the Maccabees, Israel must stay true to its Hellenist roots in order to survive
They concealed in their breasts Parabellums
And a few hand grenades just in case
But today they show so much cleavage
That nothing can hide in that place
Popular Israeli song about Zionist pioneer women. Lyrics: Yosi Gamzo, music: Russian folk, sung by Yehoram Gaon
It is no secret that at the dawn of the second half of the first millennium BC Greeks developed a unique and powerful culture, a culture that, when filtered through Roman pragmatism and Jewish morality, gave us what we now know as the Western civilization.
By the second century BC the center of gravity of the Greek or Hellenistic civilization had left Greece and moved to the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires that between them split what we know of today as the Middle East. The tiny hilltop kingdom of Judah found itself in the Seleucid sphere of influence and its indigenous inhabitants, the Jews followed many other nations in falling under the spell of the Hellenist culture, perhaps the first globalist culture in Europe and the Middle East.
This culture was vibrant; it simultaneously offered philosophy, science, literature, beauty, and even religion. If you spoke Greek, it was like speaking English today; you could get by anywhere. As a Hellenist, you could go to the gym and make your body beautiful and attractive, so that it would look great in a toga. You could look and feel sophisticated, urbanized, a true global citizen, a man or woman of the world.
The Judean urban elites not only failed to resist the adoption of the Hellenist culture, they led the way to it. What we think of today as the defilement of the Second Temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship, started as its “updating” to fit with the prevailing cultural winds and it was done by the Jewish cohanim themselves, the priestly caste in charge of temple worship and sacrifice service.
The Second Temple in Jerusalem was “defiled” just like American houses of worship that belong to the so-called “Reformed” and “Conservative” denominations of Judaism were “defiled” when they adopted many Christian characteristics that are utterly foreign to true or Orthodox Judaism. From pipe organs and chanting to mixed male and female seating to female “rabbis” to even changing their very name from the original “synagogue” a great Greek word for the Hebrew “beit knesset”, a house of gathering, to the new age “temple”. These are nothing but panderings to the prevailing culture designed to put backsides in the pews and dollars in the collection boxes.
Throughout most of the second century BC, if you were a Hellenist in Judah, you were running with the in crowd. You were rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful. You were somebody. And then there were the Jews out in the countryside, out of sight out of mind Jews like the out of favor priestly family of Matetyahu (Matthew) from the small village of Modi’in near Jerusalem, which had started the Maccabean revolt. Near, yes, but it could have been light years away. The Greek influence had never reached Modi’in and what rumors there were of it found no favor with the people who resided there.
The second century BC Jewish revolt against Hellenism that ended up in the events we celebrate as Hanukkah had much in common, surprisingly, with the American revolt against Britain in the 18th century AD, two thousand years later. Both revolts were first and foremost civil wars in which one side was assisted by an external power; in the case of the Judean revolt, the Seleucid Empire and in the case of the American revolt, the British one. Both revolts pitted globalists who wished to remain part of the “big picture” in world affairs and participate in the leading global culture of their day against nationalists who placed their idiosyncrasies, their nationhood, their uniqueness, and their independence above the benefits of counting themselves among the subjects of a great empire. Both revolts resulted in a hard-fought victory for the nationalist side and both changed the world forever.
Had the Judean nationalists failed to reverse the assimilation trend of their Hellenist brothers and sisters, there would have been no Jesus and thus no West. That much is certain. It was their unlikely victory that made the world we live in today. But what about their direct descendants, the Jews? To this question, we must give an honest if perhaps startling answer: out of the perhaps 13 million Jews in the world today, more than 10 million can be firmy counted among the Hellenists.
Yet there is an important distinction. American and other diaspora Jews who wear modern western clothing are in their vast majority globalist Hellenists, akin to the original ones. They speak foreign languages like English, they have hellenized names like Douglas and Scott, they view their Jewishness, some fondly, others less so, as a quirky tradition, nothing more.
Israeli Hellenists, the people we today call secular Israelis and who comprise about two thirds of all Israeli Jews are a different and rather unprecedented breed of Hellenists: nationalist Hellenists. In fact, National Hellenism, is a good alternative name for Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jews. All Zionist founders and most Zionists since the beginning of the Zionist movement were secular and assimilated Jews, in other words, Hellenists. They were also Jews who knew that without political independence in our own homeland of Israel and without the means of defending that homeland, we would all perish from the earth and unlike the globalist Hellenistic Jews, they were not willing to let that happen.
The nationalist Hellenists who built Israel and who are leading it to this very day speak their own language and have their own uniquely Jewish culture, but they dress in western clothing and maintain western liberal lifestyles. They built and are maintaining a country that is fully a part of the world’s leading culture, the Western Civilization and they have adopted many of its most attractive features like human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. They also like to have lots of fun, the kind of fun that the Maccabees would surely have frowned upon. They are the Maccabees 2.0; nationalist, but not exclusionary, ready to fight, but welcoming to strangers.
The Jewish nation is now at the edge of a precipice, though one could ask: what else is new? American Jewry is committing mass suicide by assimilation and intermarriage. Other diasporas are insignificant in numbers and no different in their rush to assimilate. Orthodox Jews are few, too few to maintain the nation. In Israel, the direct ideological descendants of the Maccabees, the religious nationalists, are joining the ultra-Orthodox in viewing the secular, Hellenistic Israelis if not as enemies, then at least as candidates to be forcefully adjusted to more religious lifestyles. They envision an Israel that is less secular, less open to the rest of the world, less democratic. Such an Israel cannot survive. Israel was conceived of by Theodor Herzl as a secular modern state and that is what it must remain or it will perish like the two kingdoms of Judah that preceded it in antiquity.
We must, this Hanukkah season, remember not only the glorious victory of the Maccabees’ brand of nationalism over the globalist Hellenists, but also the aftermath of their victory with its internecine strife and rampant corruption, which within a few short decades so utterly squandered the fruits of their hard-fought battles. If Israel is to survive, if it is to save the Jewish nation from extinction, it must do better than its predecessors, it must remain both united and pluralistic, both religious and secular, both traditional and modern, and above all always Jewish, in the widest, most inclusive sense of that word.
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