Judaism: The New Hellenists
Our sages teach that the people of Israel succeeded in surviving the harsh exile of Egypt because they retained their names, language and clothing.
My father Harav Baruch Kempinski z’l pointed out that Pharaoh was attempting to obliterate those exact things in Joseph .
We read when Joseph was made viceroy of Egypt" So Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Look, I have appointed you over the entire land of Egypt.And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and placed it on Joseph's hand, and he attired him [with] raiment of fine linen, and he placed the golden chain around his neck. .... And Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath Pa'neach, and he gave him Asenath the daughter of Poti phera, the governor of On, for a wife, and Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt.( Genesis 41:41-45).
Perhaps even unconsciously Pharaoh was changing his clothing, his name and even his language with the choosing of an Egyptian mate. Yet we see that Joseph retained his identity and individuality. We see it in how he ate his meals privately and note the Hebrew names he gave his children.
The battle against the seduction of assimilation into the sea of political correctness though continues throughout our history.
Hanukkah describes the victory of the Judeans over the Greek armies. But Hanukkah is just as much about a deeper and more critical struggle. It is about a spiritual war between brothers and between two world views.
Greece, found holiness in beauty. The Jews found the beauty of holiness.". (“Hebraism and Hellenism,” 1869).
The world view called Hellenism after the victories of Alexander the Great, quickly spread throughout most of the western world and threatened to engulf the land of Judea as well. Hellenism begins its roots with one of the three sons of Noah, Yaphet ( Japhet).The name Yaphet is rooted in the Hebrew word -Yapheh-Beauitiful. Noah blessed this son with the following words “May God grant beauty to Yaphet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).Beauty, and the admiration of beauty, are intrinsic to Yaphet’s spiritual world view and understanding. With that comes an appreciation of what is right before us in both space and time.
Hellenism, then, can best be described by the words of Matthew Arnold, the British poet and critic (1822 – 1888), who wrote that Greece, found holiness in beauty. The Jews found the beauty of holiness". (“Hebraism and Hellenism,” 1869).
It is not surprising, then, that the Greek warlords could not countenance a Jewish faith that allowed for a circumcision that defied the beauty of a body ( whispers of recent European edicts) .They also could not allow for a faith that sanctified the new month and the Sabbath as opposed to simply walking in the reality based present. Most importantly Hellenism celebrated human reason and thought above faith and spiritual realities.
We light the Hanukah menorah then not as a celebration of the physical victory of the Maccabees but rather as a spiritual victory against Hellenism and assimilation. Yet in the midst of that celebration we do not conduct a festive meal as we do on Purim. This is so because the battle against Hellenism is far from being over. That struggle continues to this very day.
Our people are faced with the same struggle today. The President of the United States opts for the “peace of the moment” and brings the whole world towards the edge of nuclear war in the future. The pleasures and comforts of the moment are preferred to the self denial and sacrifice for the purpose of the coming generations and ultimate destiny.
We then read of the Hellenists of our day like the Washington DC-based Jewish lobby group J Street . They recently declared on their website that they “welcome the agreement... as a first significant step in efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” This is a statement that comes out of a desire to be loved and accepted and flies in the face of logic and reason. They and the Thomas Friedman's of our day represent the same Hellenist Jews who wanted to meld with the politically correct reality of their time and therefore deny reason and their own instinctual faith.
So as we gather around our Hanukah menorah we need to remember in the words of the Baal Hatanya, Chabad's great leader, who said that "A small amount of light dispels a great deal of darkness" (.Tanya Ch. 12. ).
Though the forces of darkness gather and strengthen the solution does not lie in despair or in turning inwards. Every candle in addition to every word , prayer and act will have a great effect against the darkness.
As Rav Kook wrote “Therefore, the pure righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom. (From "Arpilei Tohar", p. 27–28)
LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved