The Hellenizers took direct aim at all that most distinguished Jews from neighboring peoples
ur Sages link each of the four great travails of Yaakov Avinu's life — the struggle with his brother Eisav, his battle of wits with Lavan, the violation of his daughter Dinah, and the loss of Yosef — with a different exile (see Ohr Gedalyahu, Bereishis, p. 114). In that scheme, the violation of Dinah is the precursor for the Greek exile — whose effects continue to be felt until today.
The first quality that we know about Dinah is that she was filled with curiosity about the surrounding people among whom her father and family dwelt. As the verse states explicitly, "Dinah... went out to look over the daughters of the land" (Bereishis 34:1). As a consequence of her violation, resulting from her having gone beyond the confines of her family, the people of Shechem agreed to a full commercial and marital intermingling with the children of Yaakov.
My late brother, Mattisyahu, pointed out in Rays of Wisdom a second characteristic related to her desire to go beyond the boundaries of her family: Dinah was the most weakly rooted of all Yaakov's children mentioned explicitly in the Torah. Of them, she alone did not become a shevet (tribe). Each tribe had a distinctive identity — its own flag, its own special position when marching and when encamped.
Dinah's identity, however, was that of a generic Jew, who is bound just as every other Jew by the mitzvos, but who lacks the additional identity associated with a particular tribe.
MORE YEARS AGO than I care to remember, my children's pediatrician, who was then pursuing a graduate degree in the history of the Second Temple period, gave me a work by Professor Elias Bickerman, which helps to explain the impact of the traits of Dinah on subsequent Jewish history, in particular the exile under the yoke of the Greek Seleucid empire.
Professor Bickerman began with a problem concerning the decrees promulgated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BCE: Nowhere else in the Seleucid Empire did Antiochus seek to uproot the religion of a vassal people. And no other people practicing circumcision was barred from doing so. Nor was any people that refrained from pork ordered to eat it.
Professor Bickerman resolves this dilemma by suggesting that the source of these decrees came from within the Jews of Judea themselves, i.e., from the ranks of the most Hellenized among them, led by the High Priest Menelaus. Antiochus was merely the executor of those decrees, not the originator.
Those Hellenized Jews had fully imbibed the Greek attitude that particularism among a people was a sign of barbarism. It was precisely Jewish particularism that caused all ancient historians to portray the Jews as "haters of all men."
In response to the charge of barbarism, the Hellenizers took direct aim at all that most distinguished Jews from neighboring peoples — circumcision, Shabbos, the festivals, and Torah study. The Temple service that they instituted involved only sacrifices from animals previously deemed impure, such as pig. And to enforce these decrees, they were willing to put their fellow Jews to the sword.
In this light, the Maccabean revolt was primarily a civil war, and the chief target of Maccabees were the "lawless" ones.
That pattern of Jews attracted to the "enlightened" of the nations among whom they dwelt working against their fellow Jews has been a frequently recurring one. During the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, Jews lived in closer and friendlier contact with their non-Jewish neighbors than in any previous period. And the Jewish upper classes were greatly attracted to Aristotelean philosophy.
That attraction served as the background of the Maimonidean controversies of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, as detailed by Professor Beryl Septimus in Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition: The Career and Controversies of Ramah. Rabbi Meir HaLevi Abulafia, the Yad Ramah, and the Ramban — themselves men of great philosophical sophistication — feared that the stress on the pursuit of philosophical truth, even if it be knowledge of G-d, as in the case of the Rambam, would end with the devaluation of the performance of mitzvos.
They also noted that philosophy was often the handmaiden of licentiousness, as it had been for the Jewish Hellenizers in their time. The Ramban characterized the aristocratic philosophers of his day in Barcelona as "men suspected of immorality," and Rabbi Meir Abulafia's brother described them as pleasure-seekers who were secretly not observant.
The fears of the Ramban were ultimately realized. For the only time in Jewish history, the majority of Jews in Spain failed the test of loyalty to their religion. Hundreds of thousands converted during the pogroms of 1391 and 1412, most at first unwillingly, but within two generations the vast majority were fully Christianized.
Many historians attribute the weakness of Spanish Jewry, compared to French and German Jews during the Crusades, for instance, to the spread of philosophy in Spain. Not only did the fascination with universal philosophy sap Spanish Jewry's will to live as Jews, it produced some of the worst Jew-haters from within. Jewish apostates created an extensive anti-Jewish literature, and they played a prominent role in almost every disputation with the Church.
Even many of the most infamous inquisitors were drawn from the ranks of the Jews.
The Hassid Yawetz, one of the exiles of 1492, noted that of the 200,000 Jews who went into exile — a small fraction of the community that had once been — most were drawn from the ranks of the simple people, not the former Jewish aristocracy.
The parallels between the Jewish Hellenizers and 19th-century German Reform are even more striking (as Bickerman explicitly noted). Moses Mendelsohn, "the German Plato" and himself an observant Jew, taught that the ideas of Judaism are all universal in nature and fully accessible to all men. Only the practices are particular and required revelation.
His followers, including almost his entire family, jettisoned the particularistic practices in their eagerness to realize his goal of full integration into German society. Even circumcision was attacked by the most radical reformers.
Like the Hellenizers two millennia earlier, the German reformers were eager to enlighten their brethren — by force if necessary. They feared that those who clung to halachah would reveal all Jews to be backward barbarians unworthy of emancipation.
Where the reformers took over the traditional communal apparatus, they used their power to suppress the traditionalists. Mikvaos were filled in, the production of kosher food halted, and yeshivos closed. The Frankfurt community board banned the study of Torah and employed the local police, in the role of Epiphanes, to enforce that ban.
TODAY A WEAK GROUNDING in Jewish practice and learning have left Jewish students vulnerable at America's leading bastions of intellectualism and "enlightenment." A November report of the AMCHA Initiative, "Campus Antisemitism and the Assault on Jewish Identity," lists Harvard and the University of Chicago as the worst campuses in America in terms of the attacks on Jewish identity: e.g., denial of Jews' historical connection to Eretz Yisrael, classification of Zionism as a subset of white European colonialism, attempts to exclude Jewish students who express support for the State of Israel from campus organizations and groups. And consistent with past history, those attacks are positively correlated with active Jewish anti-Israel organizations, such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), on campuses.
The Harvard Crimson editorialized in favor of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israel. And the Chicago Maroon published an op-ed praising members of JVP for being openly anti-Zionist and other anti-Zionist Jews for their support of BDS. When a group of Jewish students wrote a counter-op-ed, it was removed from the paper's website, on the grounds that it contained "factual inaccuracies [that] were used to support Zionist and racist sentiments [and} perpetuated hate towards UChicago's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine," which had called, inter alia, for a boycott of "[expletive deleted] Zionist courses."
The authors of the AMCHA report perceptively switch the focus from just physical threats to the safety to Jewish students or incidents in which they are targeted for harassment and intimidation, which have also increased dramatically in recent years, to assaults on Jewish identity and history.
The relentless undermining of Jewish identity, they argue, will have consequences for the Jewish community in both the short and long term. While students who identify as Zionists feel the assault most acutely, the impact on those who come to campus with little Jewish background or personal connection to Israel may ultimately be of even greater significance. "When such Jewish students witness the relentless assault on Zionism, Zionists and the campus organizations that support them, including Hillel, Chabad, and pro-Israel student organizations, they are likely to be far less open to partaking of opportunities to explore their Jewish heritage and identity [such as Birthright or MEOR]."
THE CHANUKAH STORY of the battle to preserve Jewish identity, in an environment that takes aim at that identity in the name of universal values, continues today.
But that is not the only part of the Chanukah story that continues. We are still here lighting the Chanukah licht. The Jewish People have always succeeded in mustering the mesirus nefesh necessary to survive, no matter how trying the circumstances, and we continue to do so today.
Despite all those lost to the Jewish People because they lacked the confidence that comes from knowing that the Torah is Hashem's greatest gift and our most prized possession; despite all those whose craving for acceptance or integration into the larger general society led them to abandon Torah practice; despite all those bedazzled by glittering achievements of others, but unable to appreciate the access to the Divine Mind granted us — we are still here.
The Baal HaTanya on the words, "ner Hashem nishmas adam — A Jew's soul is the candle of Hashem," explains the connection between the flame of a candle and our soul. Just as the light of a candle continually seeks to go higher and rejoin the great fire above, even though by doing so it will be extinguished in this world, so the soul of a Jew continually seeks to cleave to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, even when that cleaving leads to it being extinguished in this world.
That was the source of mesirus nefesh of the Maccabees in their day, and of hundreds of thousands of believing Jews throughout history. As we look at the Chanukah lights, let us rejoice that the mesirus nefesh that lies at the root of our national existence continues to burn today, despite all the efforts to destroy us from within and without.
A lichtige Chanukah.