Conventional wisdom assigns to Antiochus IV Epiphanes the role of history's first religious persecutor, the first tyrant to issue orders to the soul of man. Yet, as Prof. Elias Bickerman first pointed out more than 60 years ago, many facts refuse to conform to this picture.
To be sure the decrees issued by Antiochus in 167 BCE effectively outlawed the practice of Judaism in Judea and substituted in its place an idolatrous cult centered on the Temple in Jerusalem. But the question remains: Was Antiochus IV the originator of those decrees or merely the executor of the suggestions of others?
What puzzled Bickerman was that nowhere else in his realm did Antiochus promulgate measures vaguely resembling those promulgated in Judea. Nowhere else was the local religion of a vassal people supplanted. No other people practicing circumcision was barred from doing so. No other people that refrained from eating pork was forced to do so. Indeed even the Jews living elsewhere in the Seleucid Empire were allowed to continue practicing their religion.
The determined efforts to extirpate Judaism in Judea, Bickerman argues, were instigated by the 'enlightened' Hellenizers, led by the High Priest Menelaus. To the Greek mind, the mark of civilization was the ability to mix freely with all peoples with whom one came into contact. Particularism was a sign of barbarism. (All ancient historians portray Jews as 'haters of all men.')
It was natural for the Jewish Hellenizers to take direct aim at the most distinguishing characteristics of Jewish religion - circumcision, Shabbat, the festivals, and the study of Torah. The cult they instituted in the Temple required sacrifice of only animals previously deemed impure, particularly pig. And they were prepared to put their fellow Jews to the sword to force their participation in the new cult and thereby civilize them.
The Maccabean revolt was thus primarily a civil war, and the primary target of the Maccabees' wrath were the 'lawless' ones. When Antiochus' successor, Antiochus V, officially recognized in 163 that the Jews had no wish to be Hellenized, he executed Menelaus as a sign of his good will.
We find some similar patterns recurring during the Spanish period.
During the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, Jews lived in more intimate and fruitful contact with their non-Jewish neighbors than in any previous period. Yet as early as the Maimonidean controversies of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, many were pointing out the dangers of the study of philosophy to which the Jewish aristocracy had become greatly attracted.
Rabbi Meir Halevi Abulafia and Nachmanides - themselves men of great philosophical sophistication - feared that the stress on the pursuit of philosophical truth, even if it be knowledge of God, as in the case of Maimonides, would end with the devaluing of performance of mitzvot.
They also noted that philosophy was often the handmaiden of licentiousness, as it had been for the Jewish Hellenizers in their time. Nachmanides characterized the aristocratic philosophers of his time in Barcelona as 'men suspected of sexual immorality,' and Rabbi Meir Abulafia's brother described them as pleasure-seekers who are secretly not observant.
The fears of Nachmanides 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 the will to live as Jews, it produced some of the worst Jew-haters from within. Jewish apostates produced 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. Once again, only the piety of simple Jews made it possible for subsequent generations of the Jewish 'enlighteners' to make mockery of their ancestral religion.
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 Halacha 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. Mikvaot were filled in, the production of kosher food halted, and yeshivot closed. The Frankfurt community board banned the study of Torah and employed the local police, in the role of Epiphanes, to enforce that ban.
So where does that leave us today? Few Jews - probably none outside of Israel - are still enraged by other Jews performing mitzvot. Assimilation is too far advanced to worry that a few die-hards will turn back the clock.
Yet the old discomfort with particularism remains. That explains why it took mainstream Jewish organizations over a week to recognize the 1991 Crown Heights riots for what they were: a pogrom. They simply did not identify with hassidim.
Most Jews today pursue an assimilationist agenda, including a hostility to serious Jewish education, that posits that Jews are best served by a society in which they are as unidentifiable as possible. It is an agenda leading directly to the Jewish graveyard, just as it would have if their historical predecessors had succeeded.