Hellenism and the Jews

Hellenistic culture would have been quite appealing to many Jews.  Hellenistic culture was built on aesthetics: architecture, fine arts, performing arts, philosophy, economics, education, and military systems were well-formed and well-carried out.  Hellenistic culture was the envy of Greece’s small satellites and dependants, and had a great influence on Jewish practices, particularly in the area of ritual.  Hellenes emphasized glory in battle and material wealth, and bought into individualism.  These elements were somewhat foreign to Jewish culture.  Although Judaism emphasized the individual, individual significance was only in terms of law and one’s relationship to God.

Some Jews were eager to adopt Hellenistic cultural innovations; others were horrified at this apparent impiety and corruption.  Isolationist groups retreated from Jerusalem to the purity of the desert to regain the proper way of life and return to evangelize.  The Essenes intended a peaceful evangelism; Qumran planned guerilla warfare at the drop of the proverbial holy hat.

Other Jews learned Greek for business and legal matters as well as to translate Scripture and proselytize.  Many took Greek names and took advantage of social services, such as gymnasiums (physical or military education).  One of the Hellenes’ strongest influences was on philosophy.  Hellenistic culture had a very critical, inquiring attitude, which conflicted with Jewish conservatism.  The most radical example was contemporary Reform Judaism, which sought to edit the scriptures and laws to mesh with Greek culture, believing in the inevitable match of the Judaic single, universal God and Greek single, global nation.

Reform Jews went so far as to ban traditional Jewish practices and laws, downgrade the Temple, and, of course, raise taxes like any new regime.  Many Jews, even the most conservative, accepted reforms up to a point.  Forced “pagan” sacrifices were the tipping point for Mattathias, who murdered a man making a sacrifice on a Greek-style altar.  Judah Maccabee and Mattathias’ sons led a revolt by religious fundamentalists against the secular reformers, driving out or killing the Greeks and their Jewish allies and rededicating the Temple in the first Feast of Hannukkah.

After the Maccabee revolt, Hellenistic practices were not stamped out entirely.  The Sadducees represented a continuation of Hellenistic trends.  The key difference between the Sadducees and the reformers was a strict adherence to Scripture, the Written Law (while reformers had been content to read the Torah selectively).  They maintained the Hellenistic focus on the individual – with, for example, their belief in free will – but Hellenistic culture and emphasis on aesthetics and ritual were what mainly the wealthy could partake of.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, rejected Hellenistic culture and embraced a slightly more populist but also scholarly approach, accepting the Talmud (Oral Law) as well as an afterlife.

The story of the Maccabees is both a story of vindication of minority rights and of violent fundamentalists crushing secularists and innovators.  It is a cautionary tale to those who would change the way of life of fundamentalists, even to raise their standard of living and bring them into the modern, global world.  There are strong parallels between reform Jews of the 2nd C BCE and today, and there is a disturbing connection between the Maccabee Revolt and questions being argued in global Judaism today, highlighted by violence and biases, like the story of the Conservative Jews being assaulted while praying at the Kotel.  However, Reform Jews of the second century emphasized God and encouraged embrace of Hellenic culture and secular laws; Reform Jews today generally emphasize elements of Jewish culture and religion while minimizing religious laws.

The entire process of Hellenization was similar to Americanization faced by Jews or immigrant groups today.  Their traditional laws and practices often don’t last under America’s relatively open, tolerant society.  When individuals have the opportunity to take actions and pursue careers that were previously banned or not available, they usually do.  Just as Jews took Greek names, went to Greek schools, and did business in the Greek world, many immigrants are immersing themselves in American culture.  For the Jews under the Greek empire, however, this period only lasted a generation; immigrants in America are not anticipating an imminent revolt by religious or cultural fundamentalists.  Indeed, the only ones fomenting rebellion today are unhyphenated Americans in the Tea Party movement.


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