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Chanukah and the Pressure to Conform

This week’s parasha, which relates Joseph’s elevation to political leadership in Egypt, almost always falls during Hanukkah. For most of us, Hanukkah is a happy and carefree holiday involving fried foods, dreidels, gelt, and menorahs. We recall the miracle that a small quantity of olive oil lasted for 8 days in the menorah of the Beit HaMikdash, the ancient Temple that stood in Jerusalem.

However, the lighthearted way in which we celebrate the holiday should not obscure the political context of the Hanukkah story. That story, a desperate attempt to ensure Jewish survival against overwhelming cultural and military forces, is very relevant to contemporary America. Hanukkah is a rejection of syncretism, the merging and mixing of cultures that usually results in the majority culture obliterating the minority culture. In America, we usually talk of the mixing of cultures as a positive development, as something that enriches our nation. For the majority culture, that might be true. But for most minorities, American acceptance has proved to be a potent solvent that dissipates and eventually destroys ethnic identity and religious commitment.

How does Hanukkah relate to our American Jewish experience? On the surface, the dry historical record of priestly politics and war may not seem to have much relevance. Hanukkah commemorates a successful revolt of the Jews in Judea against the regime of Antiochus IV, the ruler of Seleucid Syria. Antiochus ruled one of the kingdoms that succeeded the empire of Alexander the Great, who conquered Judea in 322 BCE. This was a Greek-speaking Hellenistic kingdom that promoted Greek culture and the worship of pagan gods. More importantly, there were many Hellenized Jews including the high priests Jason and Menelaus who were in open conflict with traditionalist Jewish factions that rejected Hellenistic influences. In the context of this intra-Jewish conflict, Antiochus IV initiated a vicious campaign of repression, banning the study of Torah and forcing Jews to worship pagan gods. This repression provoked a revolt among the Jewish population. Under the leadership of the Hasmoneans, the traditionalist factions were able to capture and rededicate the Beit HaMikdash in 165 BCE, purging it of the pagan worship.

The theme of the Hanukkah story therefore is resistance to overwhelming pressure to conform to a dominant culture. This theme is present as well in this week’s parasha. After successfully interpreting Pharaoh's dreams and saving Egypt from famine, Joseph attains an exalted status as a leader in Egypt. He takes on the identity of an Egyptian by accepting a new Egyptian name, marrying the daughter of an Egyptian priest, accepting Egyptian honors, and even refusing to eat with his brothers when they come begging for food during the famine. As explained by Onkelos, Egyptians refused to eat domesticated animals since they worshipped them as gods. Joseph’s behavior implies that he accepted this practice, perhaps not out of belief in the divinity of goats, but simply because that was what everyone else was doing and he was going to go along with it. However, Joseph does retain some of his original Hebrew identity. He gives his sons Hebrew names, Ephraim and Manasseh, in a refusal to fully embrace Egyptian identity for his family.

The desire to conform Jewish identity and practice to a dominant culture, along with the grave challenges of such a project, are recurrent themes in Jewish history. About 150 years after the Hanukkah story, a Greek-speaking Jew who lived in Egypt attempted to use Greek philosophy to interpret the Torah. Philo of Alexandria was a traditionally observant Jew who wrote voluminous commentaries on the Torah. These commentaries are all in Greek and their goal is to reconcile Torah and Platonic philosophy. Philo’s tool is allegory, in which everything in the Torah is symbolic of a philosophical ideal or principle. These allegories can be tenuous: he argues that Joseph represents the ideal statesman, since the interpretation of dreams is analogous to what political leaders do when they construct a narrative out of the disjointed facts of political reality. Today, the works of Philo are of interest to some academics, but they have no impact on the world of serious Torah scholarship. They are clearly apologetics that aim to make Torah deserving of the prestige accorded to ancient Greek philosophy.

Such syncretism between Torah and popular intellectual trends is ultimately fruitless. This is a central message of Hanukkah. The cultural and intellectual values of contemporary America may seem compelling, true, and obvious. But just as the taboos of ancient Egypt are long gone, and the appeal of Platonic idealism has receded with the rise of empirical science, so too we live in an evanescent cultural moment. Only the Torah is eternal and its values should guide our lives.