Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Former Central Shaliach of Bnei Akiva in North America.
Currently President of Ve’Ahavta – TLV Jewish Experience
Between Hasmonean and Modern-Orthodoxy
We tend to perceive the struggle against the Greeks as a cultural war. The Greeks didn’t try to annihilate us or destroy the Beit Mikdash. They had one simple request; they wished to defile the oils in the Beit Hamikdash. They wished to infuse their wisdom and modern culture into our pure oils; into our Shuls, into our Jewish life and into our Jewish culture. On Chanukah, we commemorate our triumph, our ability to stand strong and not be influenced by any piece of their modern culture whatsoever. For us, as Modern Orthodox Jews, it might be hard to identify with this struggle against modernization, unless we understand the profound message of this struggle and our victory.
The Gemara (Baba Kama 82b) brings a very interesting story which relates to this cultural war. The story takes place about hundred years after the victory of Chanukah. A fraternal war was aiming to bring the Chasmona’im kingdom to its end. The two sons of Shlomzion the Queen, who claimed the kingship, fought against each other.
“When the kings of the Chasmona’im house (The allusion is to the struggle between the two sons of Alexander Jannaeus) fought one another, Hyrcanus was outside and Aristobulus within. Each day they used to let down Denarim (money) in a basket, and haul up for them [animals for] the continual offerings. An old man there, who was learned in Greek wisdom, spoke with them in Greek, saying: ‘As long as they carry on the Temple-service, they will never surrender to you. On the morrow they let down Denarim in a basket, and hauled up a pig. When it reached half way up the wall, it stuck its claws [into the wall] and the land of Israel was shaken over a distance of four hundred Parasangs. At that time they declared, — ‘Cursed be a man who rears pigs and cursed be a man who teaches his son Greek wisdom!”
The Greek influence was still endangering our nation, in a way that forced our sages to add new decrees even a hundred years after the astonishing triumph. However, this decree was limited merely to one area:
“The Greek language and Greek wisdom are distinct” – meaning Greek language is legitimate as opposed to Greek wisdom, which is prohibited.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook (Maamarei Re’aya, 476) had a tremendous and relevant insight on this Midrash that can shed some light on the matter at hand. “The words of our sages should not be taken literally. The distinction between Greek language and Greek wisdom is the distinction between style and content. Greek language means ‘style’. We derive all the content and wisdom from our holy Torah. We have no need to borrow from the content of foreign cultures, when our own traditions are so rich and stimulating, ennobling the individual and the community. But we may accept from other peoples that which adds external beauty and elegance. Even after the culture clashes with Hellenism, the Sages taught that it is fitting to adopt stylistic enhancements – “May the beauty of Yefeth be in the tents of Shem.”
The Greeks were trying to infuse their influence also to the content, to the Avodah of Beit Hamikdash. They didn’t try to stop the Avodah but rather to defile it. “Detaching ourselves from the holy content of the Torah and borrowing from the content of foreign cultures is inexcusable. Nevertheless, it is not an embarrassment for us to utilize that which other nations have developed. Even for the construction of the Mikdash, King Solomon turned to Hiram, the king of Tyre, for the expertise of his workers in cutting down and preparing the wood… But after these external preparations, it was the Jewish people who secured the inner holiness of the Mikdash.” (Ibid)
The modern lifestyle, the exchanging fashions, can glorify the Torah and even Beit Hamikdash which was built in a Non-Jewish style. However, this can only be done under one strict condition. Never can the contemporary fashion replace or penetrate to our life content, to the holy foundations of the Torah. The struggle with the Greeks wasn’t aimed against the modernization but rather against the way the Greeks wanted to implement it. Our victory is our ability to differentiate between STYLE and CONTENT.