This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Hellenism Revisited*

The villains of the Hanukkah story are identified as "Hellenizers." As with many villains of history, our sources are not very interested in the details of their ideology, beyond the fact that they came into a fateful conflict with our ancestors.

The phenomenon of Hellenism nevertheless presents certain difficulties which are deserving of our attention. For example, many of us are puzzled by the fact that the same Hasmoneans who led the struggle against Antiochos and his collaborators so quickly established a state that was itself modeled along Hellenistic lines. The same holds true to some degree for the literature of the Talmud and Midrash, which is filled with thousands of Greek words and reflects intimate familiarity with Greek society and customs. Both the Hasmonean kings and the talmudic rabbis were likely to bear Greek names. If Hellenism was the enemy, then how could loyal Jews have been so tainted by it?

The truth is that Hellenism is a much more complex phenomenon than is allowed for by the school-book accounts of the Hanukkah story. As understood by historians the term does not refer to the actual culture of ancient Greece, but to a synthesis between Greek civilization and that of the ancient Middle East.

When Alexander the Great's armies overtook these regions, Greek colonies were set up in order to spread the benefits of Civilization to backward Semitic peoples. In practice, this would usually take the form of communities of Greek merchants or soldiers trying to maintain an Athenian life-style on Egyptian or Judæan soil. The process was not one-directional however. Over a few generations, the original Greek settlers (who were not usually scholars or philosophers) would become assimilated and intermarried into their surroundings, soaking up many of the features of the local culture. It is this mixture of Greek and Middle-Eastern elements that is designated in the word "Hellenism."

Last summer, a participant in a computer network devoted to the study of ancient Judaism requested from his colleagues that they share their characterizations of Hellenism. Several of the responding scholars offered the same analogy: the status of English-language culture in contemporary Israel. Thus, most Israelis are familiar with Coca-Cola(TM), television shows and American consumer technology, but are far less likely to have read Shakespeare or Thoreau.

This description accurately parallels the situation in ancient times as regards Hellenistic culture. Talmudic literature uses an extensive Greek vocabulary for utensils and political institutions. There is however no evidence that the rabbis had read Plato or Sophocles. While Homer is apparently mentioned in the Mishnah (but only to forbid reading him), the only major philosopher to be mentioned is Epicurus, not so much as an individual but as a synonym for atheism or heresy.

This pattern held true for the Maccabean period as well. The Maccabees, like the rabbis, were "Hellenists"--but they knew to draw the line when foreign ideas threatened sacred Jewish values and practices. It should be noted though that even the "real" Hellenists against whom the Maccabees were fighting were probably not trying to establish real Greek paganism in Jerusalem, but merely what they perceived to be a modified version of Judaism that would be more acceptable to Hellenistic conventions.

This less simplistic understanding of Judaism and Hellenism is of more than antiquarian interest. It may provide us with a more realistic criterion for applying the lessons of Hanukkah, and in making the complex choices between the mixed Jewish and "Hellenistic" options which actually confront us in our daily lives.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers


Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]

First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press November 15 1991, p. 15.

Bibliography:

  • E. Bickerman, The God of the Maccabees, Leiden 1979.
  • S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York 1962.