Judaism Today: Hellenized Again

One of the most baffling questions of the November 1996 elections is why so many Americans voted for a candidate for whom they had nothing but contempt. Polls repeatedly revealed that most voters intended to cast their ballots for the president while simultaneously considering him to be somewhere between a liar and a coward. Results confirmed that this was exactly what they did. Later I posed a question to most Democrats I met: Why would you elect as leader of the free world someone you would hate your son to emulate?

This voting behavior is bizarre, and fortunately, the holiday I have just celebrated, Chanukah, provides a compelling explanation.

Chanukah commemorates the 170 B.C. struggle between the Greeks and the Jews. That struggle was not so much military as it was cultural. In much the same way as is true of America’s contemporary cultural conflict, it was waged to determine whether a theocentric or secular social view would prevail. The historian Josephus draws our attention to an ominous parallel with America today: The fiercest fighters for secularism were Hellenized, or secularized, Jews.

When the Greeks entered the holy temple during the hostilities, they demonstrated their obsession to secularize Jewish society rather than destroy it. They inflicted virtually no physical damage to the temple, but they utterly contaminated its spiritual purity. No court would have awarded the aggrieved Jews a penny of damages, for none was done. The Greeks only killed a pig, on the altar and broke the high priest’s seal on the candelabrum’s sacred olive oil containers. This sacrilege, however, was enough to infuriate fervent Jews everywhere, and it motivated the faithful few to advocate until today the world view of Jerusalem over that of Athens.

The culture war between Jerusalem and Athens is about the appropriate role for God in a democratic society. Jerusalem claims that God revealed himself to the Jewish people for the express purpose of using them as messengers of his wishes to the world. These wishes chiefly concern how mankind ought best to organize society.

In addition to ritual matters such as the kosher dietary laws, the Torah conveys ideas such as the sanctity of all life, the ideal family structure, the moral legitimacy of private property, and restraint in all appetites, particularly the sexual.

Athens promotes the idea that nothing stands higher than human reason and desire. This can be seen clearly today in America’s temples to Athens, namely her universities. With their Greco-columned architecture and surrounded by fraternities and sororities with Greek names, they stand as Athenian fortresses in the war to wipe America clean of religion.

Foremost among the weapons used by the universities and their allies is the campaign to diminish God as Almighty.

You might recall Bill Moyers’s controversial PBS series of last fall, “Genesis.” During each interminable episode, Moyers interviewed a group of Christians and Jews. I would have to say that the Jewish participants were perhaps more susceptible to Hellenic influence than they realized, because PBS certainly got its money’s worth, even if religious viewers did not. Faced with biblical conundrums that any first-year yeshiva student could have answered, panelists, ever so gently steered by Moyers, weightily concluded that poor old God just can’t be expected to be everywhere and watch everything. And after all, you can’t really blame a somewhat inadequate but well-intentioned Deity if things occasionally get out of control and a Cain, say, kills Abel.

It could have happened on anyone’s watch. It is also rather reassuring to consider this while contemplating those things we have allowed to get out of control in our own lives….

No longer do we have to live up to God’s expectations of us, we simply lower our expectations of God. Thank you, PBS—ancient Athens is proud of you.

This is precisely the propaganda strategy first developed by the ancient Greeks that was so vigorously opposed by Jerusalem. No longer was God to be an image of adored perfection toward which men could aspire in ever-hopeful worship. No, they brought their gods down onto Mount Olympus and turned them into caricatures of every human frailty and appetite. That satisfactorily eliminated any model of perfection and opened the doors to degenerate concupiscence and drooling lechery. No longer would a critical and judging God sit on his heavenly throne and inhibit his human subjects with disapproving looks.

I think we did the same thing last November. We aren’t proud of it; we wouldn’t want our sons to be like him, but it sure is comforting not to have a leader whose very existence would have been a silently heard and compelling call to nobility, courage, and integrity.


Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

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