Thoughts For Vayeshev and Hanukah 5773

Are there any commonalities shared by our sedra this week and Hanukah?  Let’s consider some elements of each, and see how they match up.

First off, we need to consider what was the conflict behind Hanukah.  It is an unfortunate misconception that the conflict was over ‘religious freedom’; and that it was a conflict between cruel invaders (the Seleucids) and the brave Macabees who fought to preserve religious freedom.  This is really a simplistic misrepresentation of the issues.  The struggle was, very sadly, as much or more a civil war as it was a battle with outsiders.  The struggle was over the character and defining culture of the Jewish people, of Jewish society.  The Hasmoneans (Macabees) didn’t fight for ‘equal religious rights’ for all.  Not at all.  They fought to resist the Hellenistic influence in Jewish society; and much of their fight was with Jewish Hellenists who were supported and joined by the Seleucid invaders.  The Hellenizers didn’t stop with adopting social or political elements of Greek culture.  The Hellenization extended to preference and dominance of Greek literature and philosophy, and religious syncretism and other changes.  This finally led to the Hasmonean uprising against these influences which resulted in war with enemies internal and external.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein notes (in a talk titled Judaism and Greek Culture) that the culture clash was actually much more nuanced and subtle than commonly thought.  Certainly there was much about Greek culture that was admirable; but there were critical principles that were antagonistic and anathema to Jewish beliefs.  As Rav Lichtenstein summarizes, the Greek perspective on the universe was that which is revealed and perceptible is all there is; that all is within man’s grasp to understand; and that man is able to dominate the universe with his intellect.  No less importantly, the Greek perspective was anthropocentric.

That last is a key characteristic issue.  Judaism places God at the center of the universe, so to speak.  The classic Greek thinker felt only mastery at conquering the powers of nature; Jewish man also experiences humility, love and fear of God when confronted by the magnificence of creation.  For all we know of the physical world; we are awed, too, by the Divine mysteries beyond our grasp.  As Rav Lichtenstein put it, “the dominion of man and his mastery over nature can be part of worship of the Creator, but man’s greatness can become so central that it becomes a religion in and of itself…the problem with Greece was not the belief in multiple deities, but rather the deification of man…Judaism demands from those who inhabit this world the center of all reality be the Creator, and we realize that we are here to serve Him.”

A Hellenist, anthropocentric philosophy and culture creates a radically different moraltiy, as well.  If man is at the center of existence, and answerable only to himself; then it follows that many behaviors that Judaism sees as decadent and indulgent could be thought of as normative and acceptable.  The overemphasis in Hellenist culture on physical power and beauty can not only misplace priorities; it can allow indulgent and even licentious behavior.  The clash with Jewish values is critically philosophical and practical.

In the Torah we also find an earlier culture with some similar challenges for God fearing people and culture.  Egypt stands out as not only a polytheistic and oppressive society; it is known as a licentious and immoral place, too.  When Avraham and Sarah went to Egypt, Avraham feared that the Egyptians would kill him and take his wife because they were known as a licentious society.  (See Gen. 12:12, Radak and other commentaries there.)

Now, in our sedra, Yosef finds himself taken to Egypt.  Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Yosef, and exacts her revenge when he rebuffs her aggressive advances.  Maybe this isn’t just an incident involving two individuals; one promiscuous and one virtuous.  Maybe this is in fact a class of cultures.  Permissive, promiscuous Egypt clashes with the God fearing, disciplined culture of Jacob’s house.  Yosef has to find a way to not only survive and later succeed in Egypt; he has to find his way to preserving his identity, beliefs, philosophy, and values while yet availing himself selectively of the good that Egypt may have to offer.  This is a constant and demanding challenge; but one that he is obliged to contend with.  Notice that when Yosef refuses her advances, he says that this would be disloyal to his master and her husband Potiphar, AND it would be a sin before God.  (See Gen. 39:9)  His protest is not based not on pragmatic notions (‘what if we get caught’); but rather on the societal and Divine values that characterize Jacob’s house and later Judaism.  The midrash (סוטה לו) says that Yosef resisted partly because when tempted by Potiphar’s wife, he saw the image of his father before him.  This is a clash of values; of traditions and cultures.  At the moment of temptation, Yosef maintained the values his father taught him.  To do otherwise would be disloyal and a sin before God.

Centuries later the Hasmoneans were confronted with an attempt to change the direction of Jewish beliefs and values.  Jewish Hellenists tried hard to resemble their Greek models and heroes outwardly and culturally.  They jettisoned Jewish practices such as circumcision; and eagerly sought participation in Greek society.  The entire foundation and implementation of Torah beliefs and values would no longer be the foundations of Jewish society, if the Hellenists had their way.

The confrontation and choices don’t end there.  Jews have continually had to make the distinctions and choices between religious, philosophical, and cultural influences.  And today, when the Jewish people have returned home and reestablished sovereignty in Israel, thank God; we are confronted with the nuanced, subtle questions of ‘what should Jewish society be and look like?’  As we read about Yosef’s personal moral courage and commitment, and the Hasmoneans’ societal cultural courage and commitment, we must honestly test our own lives and that of our renewed society in Israel; and ensure that we are indeed continuing the legacy of the Maccabees that we celebrate with each night that we light the hanukiah.