Beginning during the reign of Ptolemy I (one of Alexander’s generals and successors), however, their span of influence widened. Cities such as Gadara and Philadelphia in Trans-Jordan, and Beth-Shean in Samaria, took on a strong Greek flavor. They joined the coastal cities Ashkelon, Acco, and others in tightening the Hellenistic noose around the Jewish heartland.
On the whole, the Jewish population in Judah successfully resisted these Hellenistic inroads. This was by no means a trivial accomplishment. The vast majority of conquered peoples outside of Israel willingly allowed themselves to be Hellenized. Only the Jews’ ever-present drive and sense of mission kept them from following suit.
There were, however, exceptions. A growing percentage of Jews, primarily from the upper classes, began to progressively embrace aspects of Hellenistic culture.
First, they adopted certain external trappings, including speaking the Greek language, participating in Greek festivals, and using Greek names. Over time, they chose outright assimilation, indulging in the imported Greek culture, visiting gymnasiums, etc.
This group was driven by distinct aims. Most were motivated by secular and economic causes. They saw Hellenism as their first-class ticket to new opportunities for social mobility and wealth. A smaller faction was inspired by an appreciation of the external beauty promoted by Hellenism. The grandeur of Greek architecture, in the form of theaters, stadiums and gymnasiums, captured their passions. Greek artistic and cultural expression, not to mention its strong emphasis on philosophic debate and understanding, seized their imaginations.
* * * * *
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the war that would ultimately follow was that it was not just a war against the Greeks. It was a civil war as well. Jews loyal to their ancestral faith fought against their Hellenistic coreligionists.
Those who remained loyal to their tradition were nationalistic in their quest to preserve their religious – and, eventually, political – independence. The anti-national Hellenists, on the other hand, were willing to sacrifice the very identity of their religion and nationality in order to achieve their assimilatory goals.
From this struggle, a new, “Jewish” definition of hero would emerge – individuals who summon up extraordinary strength of character at pivotal moments. Our heroes were and are bastions of the spirit, men and women who refuse to buckle under trying conditions. It is a definition that has stood the test of time.
Where did this great bravery and moral courage come from? In his address to the Chicago siyum, Rav Uren Reich, rosh yeshiva of Woodlake Village (NJ), spoke of the true nature of Torah study. In the process he referenced a verse that was designed to comfort us following the harrowing predictions of Parashas Bechukosai:
“But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God” (Vayikra 26:44).
Rav Reich quoted Chizkuni, who asked a seemingly insolent question. How can Hashem say He will neither reject nor annihilate us? Has not history proven otherwise? Have we not been forced to endure every form of unspeakable suffering known to man? Did we not lose every precious gift that had been bestowed upon us, including the Temple, our Holy Land, etc.?
He answered that there was one special gift we never lost, one constant reminder that we remained His nation, despite our many sins – the holy Torah. And we were spared that gift because Jewish life would not be possible without it. Taking away our Torah was tantamount to our complete destruction, Heaven forbid.
The Jews who lived during the time of the Hellenistic struggle understood that they were not simply fighting for the preservation of their culture. Their fight was for their very existence; their battle would determine whether the Torah, the true life source of our nation, would continue to provide us with its life-sustaining teachings and direction. For that, they were willing to risk their lives, because a life without Torah was a life not worth living.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012 will live on in the minds of the world at large as one of many dates on which hundreds of modern-day Olympians transfixed the minds of viewers the world over with their unique blend of strength, speed, skill and courage. It was a day of celebration and disappointment, with gold for some and no acclamation for many others.