Chanukah: Celebrating the Liberation From American Hellenism

We are all familiar with the story of Chanukah – how the Greeks wanted to subvert Jewish life by injecting it with Greek values. Unlike Purim where Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish body as well as obliterate any remnant of Torah learning and mitzvah observance, the Greeks had a much more seemingly innocuous approach – “No, go ahead – learn your Torah, observe your mitzvos, pray to your Jewish G-d but do it with a Greek twist – do it because it makes intellectual sense. As we say in our prayers “to forget Your Torah, Your statutes….”. This was epitomized by the Greeks desire to contaminate all of the oil in the Temple – rendering it halachically permissible for lighting the menorah but defiled nonetheless.

This seemingly insignificant subtlety created a transformation within the masses of Jewry and produced Jews that traded the hallmarks of Jewish identity – Jewish names, Jewish clothing and Jewish speech (which by these distinctions our Jewish ancestors had merited “Yetzias Mitzriyim” [the Exodus from Egypt]) for Greek names, Greek clothing and the Greek language– Hellenists. What began as an enlightened embracement of “modernism” ended in outright idolatrous worship. It was only through the miracle of the “poc shemen” [the Chanukah oil] that brought our nation back from the brink.

Yet how many of us consider that we may have fallen for the same innocuous approach right here in present day America?! While America is a “madina v’maluchus shel chesed” [a nation and government of kindness] where Jews openly and freely live Judaism, its values and cultural message are the same as the former Greek Empire – be a modern Jew; be an American Jew [as opposed to a Jewish American]. You can go to the movies, watch television with theater sound on high definition 36 inch plasma screens, surf the net, go on kosher cruises, choose family planning, have both spouses pursue full-time yet dynamic careers and provide our children with the “best of the best” secular education – yet still be a Torah learning, mitzvah observant Jew.

What seems as pareve [neutral] pursuits are in reality pipelines by which American culture and values are fed to contaminate our Jewish sensibilities. What is the result? An American Hellenist: a transformation of the Jewish masses with names like Joe instead of Yoseph, Abe instead of Avrahom; mall bought fashion that is borderline tznius [modesty] that even when it meets all halachic requirements – still pales to the majestic elegance of women’s “hemishe” [Jewish made] clothing, casual speech instead of refined words permeated with Torah values that befit a prince or princess of Hashem.

This isn’t advocating a shtetl [a ghetto] mentality
. It is no coincidence that this years Chanukah spans Parshas Vayeishev – Mikietz. Yoseph was the only one of Yaakov’s twelve sons with the appellation of “Yoseph HaTzadik”. While his brothers were tzadikim – they were shepherds able to spend their time in isolation and in contemplation of Hashem. Yoseph distinguished himself in his avodas Hashem by being in the heart of the moral depravity of Egypt, glamour of Egyptian aristocracy and potential drunkenness of ultimate power yet maintained his distinction as a Torah Jew.

We do not have to be tzadikim – we just have to be like the Menorah – “a light unto the nations”. By full Jewish names, truly modest dress and words of Torah; by being “un-plugged” from American entertainment/media while immersing ourselves in more Torah learning and mitzvos b’hiddur [performed with the highest of standards] – we can walk among our fellow Americans yet still radiate G-dliness and inspiration; in the world, yet above the world. By having our Jewish purity intact like the “poc shemen” – we look to light every person, place and moment with “…and the pursuit of the world will be knowledge of Hashem”.

20 comments on “Chanukah: Celebrating the Liberation From American Hellenism

  1. B”H

    To all – thanks for the feedback. I will try to clarify/answer some of the points/questions raised:

    1 – anonymous:
    I do not mean to convey one shouldn’t consider one’s sincerity or background – of course those are factors. I mean to convey someone who has had the opportunity to learn and live Torah values yet is being tricked/blinded by secular values.

    2 – Cosmic X:
    I refer to chutz l’aretz as “shmutz l’aretz” . That being said – consider 2 points:
    a) there is a tachlis, a mission, that can be accomplished in chutz l’aretz.
    b) Eretz Yisrael, with all of its kedusha – the Shechina is still in golus as long as we do not have the Beis HaMikdash.

    3 – Bob Miller:
    a) Yes it is possible. Try not to take things [i.e. this article] so literally. b) Yes, my last name is of German descent and therefore???????

    4 – Jacob Haller:
    Thanks for the benefit of the doubt.

    I’m confused – doesn’t this years Chanuka span two Shabbosim? So – whats with “ALWAYS”?

    True but according to the Ramban – she called him “Moshe”. See the Ramban’s comments on Yoseph’s name of “Tzafnas Pane’ach”. Also – if you dig deeper into Rashi – Rashi is teaching that was his hebrew name.

    Obviously the people and examples you gave do not fit into the “target audience” of whom I was addressing this article to. [see comments below].

    5 – Ploney:
    I agree with you. Pls see my comments to Jacob above.

    btw – where did family planning come into this? Regardless, I also agree with you :0).

    6 – Steve Brizel:
    Agreed. The article is targeted at MO, Chareidi, Reform, etc. – “if the shoe fits, wear it”. Btw – I never specified “MO” in the article as I feel the same way as you commented……

    7 – Chana:
    I hope so too :0)!

    8 – JR:
    Yes – that is the point I am trying to convey – “…we can live like a Hellenist while remaining frum.”

    9 – Charnie:
    True – however, consider that also the “frum” community is held by Hashem to a higher standard than our brothers and sisters who have the halachic status of “tenuk she’nishbah” – children who are POWs (so to speak)….

    10 – Ilanit:
    Not sure what to comment here – ask a Rav.

    11 – Steg:
    a) see my comments to Jacob above.
    b) True but initially it did not start with persecution and that wasn’t the main focus.

    12 – LC.

    I hope that clarifies the essential message I attempted to convey in the article.

    May we find luminous inspiration through our observance of Chanukah and may we merit to witness the Kohein Gadol lighting the menorah this Chanukah!

  2. And Yosef did not need a translator to speak to his brothers. He used a translator (his own son – and how did HE know lashon ha’kodesh if Yosef didn’t teach it to him!) so his brothers wouldn’t catch on that it was him.
    If you go back and look (post 14), you will see the single quotes around ‘needing’, indicating the author’s clear understanding that it was a ruse – the point in the post being that Yoseif DID speak Egyptian. (contrary to the general rule that the Jews kept their langauge, etc. – but it also never said they refused to learn the local language as well) . . .

    and I believe it is when Chanukah starts on Friday that parsha Miketz falls out AFTER Chanukah – we were looking up possibilities for my son’s Bar Mitzvah parsha, and IIRC that was the only way his birthday (27 Kislev) fell out after Shabbos Chanukah.

  3. Maybe the outdoor Chanuka decorations fall under the category of “pirsumei nisa” (publicizing the miracle) though actual pirsumei nisa is to publicly light the menorah.

    As one BT put it, “Let me tell that before I was frum, it was the little things, such as seeing a Menorah in a public place that was otherwise inundated with x-mas displays that planted the seeds to bring me to becoming a Ba’al Teshuva.”

    And Yosef did not need a translator to speak to his brothers. He used a translator (his own son – and how did HE know lashon ha’kodesh if Yosef didn’t teach it to him!) so his brothers wouldn’t catch on that it was him.

  4. Ilanit, I’m with you on the decorations, not that this either is an example of Hellenism, since one can put up all the decorations in the world, and still be Shomer Mitzvot. However, if someone did a door-to-door survey, they would almost invariably find that the “decorators” are not Shomer Shabbos.

    In my office my co-workers have been busy putting up their Xmas decorations, all very “non-religious” and rather attractive. Several people asked me if I wanted a menorah put up, and I told them that there’s really nothing inherit in Chanukah about decorating, other than it’s (unfortunate) proximity to their holiday. We do have a mitzvah to beautify a mitzvah, which does explain why my hands still feel uchy from silver polish this morning, and we also try to find a beautiful esrog for Succos.

  5. “as well as whether we all should be speaking Yiddish or Lashon Ha’Kodesh”

    I wasn’t debating whether we should speak Yiddish or Ivrit. I was pointing out that Yiddish developed from old German, and it seems somewhat hypocritical to critize “Joe” or “Abe” when these are more Jewish than many Yiddish-German names, not to mention many of the names in the Gemara.

    Using an English form of a Hebrew name has nothing to do with Naval B’Rshus HaTorah. Kosher cruises and the like may or may not, but in any case Naval B’Rshus HaTorah is not the same thing as Hellenism. As Steg pointed out, Hellenism was about things which are certainly “Shelo B’Rshus HaTorah.”

  6. Not only did Yoseif have his name changed to the Egyptian Tzafnat-Pa‘neiahh, but he also *wore Egyptian clothing* and *spoke Egyptian* (hence ‘needing’ a translator to speak to his brothers).

    Hellenism wasn’t anything like this post describes it. Hellenism was about forcing other Jews to abandon mitzvot and participate in idolatrous rituals. It was about selling the position of Kohein Gadol to the highest bidder, whoever could bribe the Foreign Government.

  7. I recently noticed a plethora of Chanukah-related outdoor decorations. Is it to compete with the Christmas decorations? Is it to declare to the world “A Jew lives here”? For some reason, the phenomenon takes me by surprise and I don’t think I like it. Has anyone else seen these decorations? What are your feelings on the subject? Or is it part of our generation’s Hellenization?

  8. Avrahom-Moishe, your intent was certainly good, but your focus of “attack for their perceived Hellenisim” missed its mark. It isn’t Torah observant Jewry that’s in the most danger, it’s our not-yet observant breathern.

  9. I am taken aback by the criticisms to this fine article.

    The Medrash says that the Jews stood out in Egypt because they did not change 1) their names 2) their clothes 3) their language and they practiced gemilus chesed (kindness). These are all externals yes, and it’s what preserved and saved us.

    We can discuss what style of clothes is REALLY Jewish, and which names are and aren’t Jewish names, as well as whether we all should be speaking Yiddish or Lashon Ha’Kodesh, but the point remains – we can live like a Hellenist while remaining frum. I think this might be what the Ramban calls “a naval b’reshus ha’Torah” – the opposite of the mitzva of “Be holy.”

  10. “What seems as pareve [neutral] pursuits are in reality pipelines by which American culture and values are fed to contaminate our Jewish sensibilities”

    Thanks for an important reminder. Hope this message doesn’t get lost in all the corrections.

  11. #7 “Minor nitpick”

    Not a nitpick at all. It was a solid educational point. Thanks Wolf!

  12. Names, clothing and mitzvos done bhiddur are wonderful, especially as an antidote to assimilation. Yet, I believe in your zeal to urge a greater sense of “liberation”, that you have all but viewed an entire sector of seriously committed MO Jews with a brush of an urban myth and stereotype and ignored the fact that the communities that you celebrate as “authentic” have no shortage of the same problems that you view solely as those of MO.

  13. In Parshas Mikeitz (which unlike Vayeishev ALWAYS falls on Shabbos Chanukah)

    Minor nitpick:

    Channukah does not *always* fall on Parshas Miketz. There are a few times that it does not.

    Note that there is a haftorah in your Chumash for Parshas Miketz. If Channukah ALWAYS fell on Miketz, then Miketz would not have it’s own Haftorah (much like most of Sefer D’varim, where the haftoras are calendar based, rather than parsha based).

    In 2000, Miketz was the day *after* Channukah.

    Carry on…

  14. It is only be understating Hellenism that you are able to make this comparison. The Hellenists wanted everyone to worship the Greek gods along with Hashem, which is a far cry from kosher cruises or buying clothing which doesn’t reflect the “majestic elegance” of “heimishe” clthing.

    Family planning is of course a personal shayla which varies with a family’s situation; one must ask a competent halachic authority.

    Not sure what you mean by “best of the best” secular education, but no doubt what some people consider “best of the best” others consider “minimum necessary to allow future college education.”

    Regarding Joe/Abe names, ever noticed any of the names in the Gemara? Rafram Bar Papa, anybody?

    Or some real heimishe names:

    Faivish: Yiddish form of Latinized form of the Greek name Φοιβος (Phoibos), which meant “bright, pure”. This was an epithet of the Greek god Apollo. A bit more hellenized than Abe or Joe, wouldn’t you say?

    Here’s some others: Zelig. – from german “holy”. Zundel – from german “son”. Fishel? Guess for yourself.

    How bout those people who make the Heimishe clothing? They probably have old fashioned Jewish names like: Aidel, Alte, Bluma, Breindel, Faiga, Freide, Gittel, Golda, Kreindel, Leeba, Perl, Raisel, Shayna, Shprintza, Zissel, Yente, Zlata… all far less “Jewish”, if we’re going by name origins, than Abe or Joe.

    Note: I have nothing against someone with one of those names, or someone who speaks medieval German with Hebrew mixed in. I simply object to the denigration of other equally observant Jews who choose to use Anglicized Hebrew names, for example.

  15. Avrahom-Moishe,

    Your approach is undoubtedly sincere, but let’s check a couple of items.

    In Parshas Mikeitz (which unlike Vayeishev ALWAYS falls on Shabbos Chanukah) after Yosef HaTzadik was promoted by Pharaoh, does it say that Pharaoh referred to him as Yosef? No, he referred to him as Zapenath-Paneah (Bereishis 41:45). Was than an Egyptian name? Yes, Yosef HaTzadik was to referred by Pharoah as “Yosef” (41:55) as well but does the name change emanating from Egyptian aristocracy support your thesis? Also, according to the Ibn Ezra, when Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moshe Rabeinu from the Nile she named him “Monios” which means in Egyptian “drawn out”.

    Also, ever make a siyum? What’s the most prominent name in the Hadran? Rav…Papa! That sounds somewhat Greek? And while on that topic, “Alexander” somehow became an acceptable Hebrew name. Same with Germanic words which became Yiddishe names like Hirsch, or Shayna or Zalman which according to Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s book on Bris Milah is a European translation of Shlomo (like Solomon is in English) thus explaining why the names “Shlomo” and “Zalman” are often in tandem.

    The points expressed are not meant to disagree with the idea that Hebrew names are as much important as they are beautiful and are a unique identifier for a Jewish person. (As an aside, my children’s Hebrew names are on their birth certificates as well writen as “Binyomin” and “Chaim” for example). But perhaps it behooves us to check some nuance and detail before making blanket statements that could come across as over-simplified or judgemental.

    A Freilchn Chanuka to you and all of BeyondBT!

  16. Avrahom-Moishe Erlenwein, do you think someone can author a blog article distributed via the internet and still be a proper Torah Jew? Or operate a Jewish-oriented web site?

  17. Yes, get unplugged from Hellenistic culture but one must also unplug himself from tum’at eretz ha’amim and come live in Eretz Yisrael.

  18. Seems to me like you’re awfully focused on the externals of clothes and names and jobs etc. What matters isn’t what a person owns, but rather how highly he/she values Torah and Mitzvos. One can wear a hat, shun TV and send children to yeshivishe schools and still value money over everything, and conversely, one can be ehgaged in the wider world but see everything through the prism of Torah and Mitzvos. (And btw, I’m pretty sure that Yoseh ha-Tzaddik dressed like an Egyptian, enjoyed Egyptian art and spoke Egyptian well.)

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