The Conspiracy

Greek Thought

Different people celebrate different aspects of Chanukkah. In liberal and progressive circles, people tend to emphasize the general theme of political and religious freedom that the Maccabees embodied, in light of the fact that they fought for the right to practice their religion. In more traditional and orthodox circles, however, one often hears the theme talked about differently: Hanukkah celebrates the independence of Judaism from the seductive and evil Greek culture and thought that threatened to lure the naïve Jews away from their Judaism. (A plug, by the way: there’s a great article about the themes of Hanukkah in the inaugural issue of Yale’s Shibboleth magazine.)

Historically, the latter formulation—the one about us resisting the temptations of cultural assimilation—is probably a bit more accurate. The Hasmonean revolt was as much a war of annihilation against the Hellenizing Jews as it was against a tyrannical Seleucid oppressor. But it’s also the tack that has had the least factual success over the course of history. Let’s look at the facts:

The original Maccabees, who had names like “Judah” and “Simon,” didn’t take two generations of ruling before they were naming their children “Hyrcanus” and “Aristobulus.” Some have drawn parallels between Rabbinic midrashic principles of interpretation and Greek logical principles of exegesis. The medieval Jewish sages of Islamic lands were fluent in Greek philosophical principles; Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed is rife with Aristotelian terms, quotations, and arguments. Some rabbis, such as Solomon Ibn Gabirol, composed philosophical treatises so secular in their nature that no one knew their authors were Jewish until the 19th and 20th centuries. The entire movement of Greek philosophy from the Islamic world into the Christian world in the late Middle Ages was accomplished through a massive translation waves from Arabic into Hebrew, and from Hebrew into Latin. Even the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition ever growing in its popularity, is based on Neoplatonic conceptions of the divine that were popular among pagans well into the Middle Ages.

Many look at the above Jewish thinkers and movements disapprovingly to the extent that they incorporate “alien thought.” And, though some reprobation might be warranted, we would be devaluing too great a heritage of Judaism if we simply rejected all of the Greek influences. Perhaps this can cause us to rethink the messages we hear about assimilation. As all of Jewish history has shown us, a certain amount of incorporation from surrounding cultures is inevitable, and perhaps useful. The challenge is to be conscious of it, and the questions to ask ourselves are when, and how, and for what purpose is such integration legitimate.

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