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  • Writer's picturerabbijonathanf

Who Is The 'Real' Jew?

Who is the ‘real’ Jew, the genius scientist, the pious Rabbinic scholar, or the nebby actor? For the early Zionists, it was none of these. The Maccabees were the ‘real’ Jews because they broke the European stereotype of the weak, defenseless Jew. They represented the strong Jew who could fight for themselves, and they recalled a time when our people farmed and fought. So for them today’s ‘real’ Jew might be Dani Kagonovich who proudly represented Israel and won the Mr. Universe title in 2015. Or maybe it’s the IDF soldier who is bravely fighting to defend Israel. Of course the irony of the association of the Maccabees as the real Jews was that the Maccabees were fighting against the glorification of power, war, physical prowess and the focus of the body, all of which were primary values in Greek society and culture. They were fighting a war of the spirit.

The Sefer Hachinuch, (the Book of Education positive commandment 418), presents a list of five primary human pleasures that drive us. They are material pleasure, honor, power, love of family and friends, and love of G-d. Greek culture emphasized the material pleasures, status, and power. The Rabbis associate this materialist outlook on life with the original darkness of creation before the creation of light (Genesis 1:2). They say the Greek influence ‘darkened the eyes of the Jewish people’. (Bereshit Rabba 2:4) Jewish values and Torah, in contrast, are associated with the imagery of light, and emphasize the two higher values of love of family and friends, and love of G-d. The latter includes living a life of meaning, righteousness, integrity and making the world a better place by helping others. The Maccabees’ battle against Greek culture was a battle against placing undue importance on the material pleasures in life, and the glorification of power and status, and their nullification of the Divine.

The Chanukah story was the story of a military victory of the few, Judah Maccabee and his 10 000 soldiers fighting for religious freedom, over the many, a Syrian Greek army of 50 000. But we do not celebrate it as a military victory which would glorify our power and physical prowess. We celebrate it as a spiritual holiday and light the Chanukah candles to remember the miracle of the Menorah and remind of to focus our lives on spiritual values. The light of Chanukah represents the power of the spirit which overcame the Greek materialist outlook on the world.

The message of Chanukah is that physical pleasure, impressing others with how we look, and attaining positions of power are transient pleasures which take second place to the higher values in our lives. The Greeks pursued them as ends in and of themselves, and that is why we rejected their world view. The Torah believes that we can enjoy the pleasures of life when they are oriented in our lives to a higher purpose of serving G-d.

Modern State of Israel has given the Jewish people the opportunity to defend ourselves, and in doing so to create one of the best armies in the world. However we are careful not to glorify strength and war, and not to make heroism an ends in and of itself, but a means to serve our country, our people an G-d. When we kindle our Chanukah lights let’s use it as an opportunity to remind ourselves that the glitter and pleasure and pomp of Greece might be attractive, but it is the spirit of Jerusalem which ultimately prevails. The culture of ancient Greece is long gone, while we have returned to our land, and this Chanukah menorot will be seen in homes throughout the land of Israel.

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