In my last article, influenced as it was by the Chanukah season, I dealt with the significance of our advertising the miracle throughout the ages and around the world.
That aspect of the celebration, which is directed outward to the larger population, is an announcement of our love of freedom, the high value we place on our own specific heritage, and our desire to live at peace with our majority culture neighbours.
There is, however, another educational message in both the origins of Chanukah and its ongoing celebration over the generations that illumines just how we managed (and still manage) to live and thrive (not merely survive) as a minority among overwhelming cultural, social, and religious majorities, Christian or Islamic. The Hasmonean revolt was the beginning of our learning how to find the delicate balance between integration and assimilation.
The metaphor I have always used with my students has been that of eating an apple. We recite a blessing and start eating a fruit in full knowledge that our taste buds will be satisfied with the crisp and tangy taste of a fresh Macintosh, but also that part of the apple will stay with us to nourish our system for maintenance and growth, while another will be expelled as waste.
The lesson is clear. Transforming Jerusalem into a Greek polis was out of the question for the traditionalists who cared deeply about the Temple rituals and the values behind them. And yet, we came to live within Hellenistic society and adopt much of their culture and language. Did we not have two perfectly good words for a court in Hebrew (bet din and bet mishpat) when we named our court the Sanhedrin from the Greek sunedrion? Why did we label a heretic an “apikoros,” from the Greek Epicurus, if the Greek language was not “tasty in our mouths?”
Across the centuries and wherever we have lived as Jews, we have managed to interact in such a fashion that language, music, literature, cuisine, and all the components of a culture flowed freely back and forth between us and our neighbours while we carefully drew the line between integration and total assimilation, rejecting that which could harm us and embracing that which appealed and allowed us to flourish.