Maccabee or Hellenist? It’s really a simple question and of course the answer is easy, isn’t it? We all love the story of the first Hanukkah every year, but where would our allegiance fall if we were to put ourselves in the shoes of an average Jew in the 160’s BCE?
Of course, it’s impossible to either relive the past or bring the past into current times, but it could be an interesting thought experiment. You know the story, so just a quick recap. There were essentially two versions of Judaism at the time, Traditional and Hellenistic. We won’t play too many games with the word Traditional, but basically it implies a reliance on the Torah and those who interpret the Torah. At this time in our history the primary interpreters of the Torah were of the priestly class. The Hellenists were Jews who combined traditional Judaism with elements of Greek culture. The easiest way for me to explain this would be to say that the Hellenists kept much of the practices of traditional Judaism but did so in such a way as to not separate themselves from the culture they lived in. Many Jews started giving their children Greek names like Alexander after Alexander the Great. Many intermarried into Greek culture. Many participated in civic events that traditionalists would have considered as Idolatrous (Sporting events often in the nude and dedicated to Zeus). Some Jews even attempted to undo their circumcisions surgically so as to not be different. Judaism was an ideal that could easily be interwoven into any society or culture, and did not require the separateness of the Traditionalists.
After some time of peace and protection under Greek culture, a new ruler set his eyes upon the Jews. Antiochus Epiphanes (god made manifest) becomes the King of the Seleucid Empire and reverses the policy of respect for Jews and their culture and begins to overthrow them. As you know, the ancient world was full of gods and temples. There was this one group of people, the Jews, who refused to acknowledge the other gods, participate in their worship, or even allow their own Temple to be used for the worship of other gods. Since the new rulers were themselves gods, refusal to worship them was tantamount to open rebellion against the ruler. There are many gods, they claimed. Yes, you can have your god and believe and practice as you want, but you must also acknowledge the other gods and participate in their worship as other good citizens do. The Hellenists were willing to compromise to keep the peace. What harm would it do to acknowledge the Greek gods and open our Temple up to them? It’s just an act for the sake of peace. The Traditionalists would make no compromise. They would remain separate.
Antiochus conquered Jerusalem, set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple and offered a pig as a sacrifice to Zeus. In addition to requiring pigs to be used as sacrificial animals for any Jews coming to worship, Antiochus outlawed the circumcision of any children being born. These acts outraged many and made the Temple unusable for Traditionalists. The revolt starts here as Mattathias, a Traditionalist priest, kills the first Jew who wanted to comply with the order to sacrifice to Zeus, and the Greek official charged with making sure of adherence to the law.
The rest of the story we all know. Mattathias and his five sons lead a revolt and his son Judah is nicknamed Maccabee, or the Hammer. After successfully recapturing Jerusalem and the Temple and rededicating it, we remember the miracle of oil and celebrate a festival of Rededication of the Temple and its separateness. Here we are 2200 years later, still remembering this revolt and the Jews who refused to compromise for the sake of peace.
So the question still remains. If given the opportunity, or the challenge, would we side with the Traditionalists or the Hellenists? . Are there any holidays dedicated to the Hellenists that I am not remembering?