American Jews mostly believe that “the” rabbis saved Judaism, that the Baal Shem Tov was a simple man of the people, and that Judas Maccabaeus led a battle against the dangers of assimilation.
None of this is true. Still,, we often rely on myths like these to define our failings as Jews.
It is too bad, really. Our history is far more complicated and far more interesting. What we can learn from it can be more than simply informative — it can press a reset button on our understanding of what it means to be Jewish.
I offer an example: the last myth I mentioned in the first paragraph: Hanukkah is a celebration of resistance. Judas Maccabaeus fought against oppression and assimilation and his story is a warning and an inspiration to us to maintain our Jewish practices and rituals.
I explored this myth with Judaism Unbound listeners this past week. I pointed out that while it is true that II Maccabees refers to both Hellenism and Judaism, nowhere do the references introduce these two words as competing concepts. As historian Erich Gruen notes: “The laudatory monograph on Judas Maccabaeus, II Maccabees, the one work regularly cited as the locus classicus for the battle against Hellenism, does not make the point” (my emphasis).
In I Maccabees, Greeks, as such, go entirely unmentioned. The author describes foes as the “surrounding nations.” He even uses Greek terminology, labeling the enemy as “barbarian hordes”!
Our author is engaging in a time-worn tactic of the Second Temple period: making current events like biblical ones. That’s how you add gravitas and authenticity to your story. Just as Joshua fought against the Canaanites, Moabites, and Amorites, we Jews of Second Temple must fight the “sons of Esau” and those who live in “Philistia.” The author of Esther does the same thing, tying his story to biblical history by claiming Agagite heritage for Haman and Benjaminite ancestry for Mordecai.
In actual fact, Jewish leaders of Second Temple times negotiated and parlayed with their royal overlords (sometimes playing one off against the other). Mostly, they get a good piece of what they want, too: the right to practice their customs, the right to offer sacrifices on behalf of the emperor rather than to the emperor, the right to send tithes to the Temple, and so on. Is their occasional friction? Absolutely.
Still, there is no evidence that life among the Greeks was imagined as a bitter contest between “Hellenism” and “Judaism.” Ancient Jews wrote mostly in Greek, generally spoke Greek, and likely thought in Greek. Jews gave their children Greek names, they printed Palestinian coinage with Greek images on one side and Jewish ones on the other, and they are wrote their civil documents in Greek.
Ezekiel (not the prophet, a writer of 2nd century BCE) wrote a play in which he depicted Moses in the mode of a Greek philosopher king. The author of Joseph and Asenath produced a romance in the style of Greek novels in which Joseph shows up with a crown of twelve radiant points that makes him look suspiciously like the god Helios. Aristobulus of Alexandria (2nd BCE) claimed Plato got his best ideas from Moses and the Letter of Aristeas offered a picture of seventy Jewish elders explaining philosophy to King Ptolemy.
Jews successfully negotiate their position in the Greco-Roman society. They are appropriating, not assimilating. They not only remain Jews, they proudly declare their traditions to be superior to Greek ones, even the source for Greek ideas.
We should think about why this history is retold as one of oppositions and dangers around “assimilation.” There is a polemic and a subtext here that rabbis, mostly, insist on (past and present).
Should we see this story as one about the dangers of assimilation when the time really tells us how well Jews manage living in other cultures while remaining proud and confident Jews?
I vote for the latter. It might set us up for a wholly different kind of Hanukkah celebration.
I dedicate this post to soon-to-be-rabbi Lex Rofeberg (January 2021!), co-founder of Judaism Unbound. He and his colleague, Daniel Libenson, offer a venue for exploring Jewish life, Jewish doings, and Jewish history in ways that can excite and liberate Jews anywhere in the world.