From the Rabbi - On Religious Freedom

Responding to a Declaration of War on Religious Freedom

Before Hanukkah I wrote my annual critique of the Maccabees and the modern myth that has grown up around them, presenting them as fighting for religious freedom. Fighters they were, and religious, but religious freedom as we understand it -- the right of the individual to practice their religion as they see fit, or not to practice any religion -- that kind of liberty was not something they could have understood, the concept being entirely outside their historical context.

Part of the myth says that the Maccabees were rebelling against Hellenism. In his fascinating book, Heritage and Hellenism (1998) esteemed scholar Erich Gruen gives us essential background:

“In the wake of Alexander the Great’s triumphant successes [336-323 BCE], Greeks and Macedonians came as conquerors and settled as ruling classes in the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Jews endured subordinate status politically and militarily, a minor nation amidst the powers of the Hellenistic world. For them, the experience was a familiar one. The Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora simply exchanged the suzerainty of the Persian empire for that of Alexander’s successors. The Greeks, secure and content with their legacy, showed little inclination to learn the languages or embrace the cultures of people who had come under their authority. Nor did they engage in missionary activity designed to spread Hellenism among the natives., They took their superiority for granted. Those who dwelled in their dominions but without a share of power did not have the same luxury. Hellenic culture, as the stamp of the ascendant classes in many of the cities of the Near East, held widespread attraction and appeal. Jews were certainly not immune. Greeks may have been largely impervious to the precepts and principles of Judaism, but Jews could hardly escape the blandishments of Hellenism. The culture of the dominant party left an enduring mark upon the heirs of Moses…

…The process of “Hellenization” is mysterious and obscure, not easily defined or demonstrated. No one can doubt that the Jews of the Diaspora came into close contact with the institutions, language, literature, art and traditions of Hellas in cities like Alexandria [Egypt], Cyrene [Libya], Antioch and Ephesus [Turkey], even to the point of losing touch with Hebrew [as a spoken language]. The penetration of Greek culture into Palestine is more controversial. But it flourished in the cities of the coast from Gaza to Akko, and in the lower Galilee at the very least, areas well within reach of the Jews [of the small kingdom of Judea]. The degree to which acculturation took place in Judea itself and the time when it began in earnest elude any certainty. A vital point, however, undergirds the discussion of this book. “Judaism” and “Hellenism” were neither competing systems nor incompatible concepts. It would be erroneous to assume that Hellenization entailed encroachment upon Jewish traditions and erosion of Jewish beliefs. Jews did not face a choice of either assimilation or resistance to Greek culture.” (pp xiii-xiv)

Professor Gruen reframes our discussion of the era this way: “how did Jews accommodate themselves to the larger cultural world of the Mediterranean while at the same time reasserting the character of their own heritage within it?”

The same question is pertinent for us as Jews in America: how have we adapted to Americanization while reasserting our Jewish traditions? The same question is urgent in Israel: how have Israeli Jews accommodated themselves to the culture of the Middle East while reasserting their Jewish heritage?

In my optimistic moments I would say that we Jews in America-- from Emma Lazarus to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to Rabbi Rick Jacobs--passionately have embraced the American ideals of democracy, human rights, and freedom of religion (including freedom from religion).  

In the The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (1948) we read:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

In my pessimistic moments I would say that, despite the high ideals enshrined in this document, a troubling number of our fellow Jews in Israel are drawn toward the authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, and clan-based cultures of the Middle East. None of us are immune from the realities of our neighborhood.

After our wonderful Beit Limud outdoor Chanukah celebration, I lingered in the cold barn on Koetke Ranch to discuss the meanings and misunderstandings of the holiday with Oren Nachson, our Jerusalem-raised Hebrew teacher. Oren reminded me that in colloquial modern Hebrew the verb “to become Hellenized” - להתיוון - is a pejorative term suggesting that a person is following non-Jewish ways. Google Translate renders it as “to degenerate.” As a rabbi, this fills me with dismay. Judaism as we know it is deeply indebted to the Greek intellectual traditions; Maimonides was an ardent student of Aristotle, and the Kabbalists were deeply influenced by Neoplatonists, to name just two examples.

But why does this matter to us? As many are aware, the recent election in Israel brought a new coalition into power with a diverse group of political leaders. The new government has made efforts to repair rifts between the US and Israeli Jewish communities, and to move toward greater recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in Israel. There is reason to hope that Israel will remain a place where all people, residents and visitors alike, can openly practice their religions according to the dictates of their conscience. But this vision is in grave danger.

Shortly after that conversation with Oren I read a chilling article titled, “Ultra-Orthodox Parties Declare War on Israeli Government's Religious Reforms.” The report begins with this: Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties on Monday declared war on the “Hellenists” in the government looking to upend the country’s religious status quo, promising to launch a joint national struggle to preserve the state’s “Jewish character.” (Full article here)

I urge you all to read the article which raises painful questions: What does it mean for powerful rabbinic authorities to attack democratically elected representatives of the people as “Hellenists”? What are the real issues? Who gets to define the states’ “Jewish character”? The same rabbinic authorities recently stated that a recent change in government policy that will allow Haredi cell phone users to access the internet is “worse than the Holocaust.”) (Full article here)

For many of us a visit to the Old City in Jerusalem is a precious opportunity to see people of diverse faith traditions in distinctive religious or ethnic garb, to hear multiple languages of conversation and worship, to breathe in the centuries of history, all that this city has meant to millions of people. But part of this movement of Jewish extremism is an effort to Judaize Jerusalem, especially the Old City, to assert the “Jewish character” as the dominant and perhaps eventually the only acceptable culture. I was heartsick to read that the heads of all of the largest Christian churches in Jerusalem found it necessary to issue a statement protesting increasing extremist violence against Chrisitan clergy and worshippers and lack of police protection: (Full article here)

Next Monday, December 27, from 6 to 8 pm, Oren and I will lead our Israel Study & Discussion Group in reviewing these articles plus further materials on Hellenism, and discussing the challenging issues of religious pluralism, and separation of synagogue and state. Please join us for a cordial, informative discussion.

We know that history is rife with tales of Christian persecution of Jews, and here in America extremists who identify as Christians continue to demonize and attack us. But as our Christian friends, neighbors and relatives prepare to celebrate Christmas, let us wish them well and rededicate ourselves to the ideal of religious freedom.

B’shalom, Rabbi Naomi