Which is it,” demanded our young daughter. “Are the Greeks good or bad?” At the time, she was a third-grade Jewish day school student, and she had had quite the day. In social studies, her class learned about the richness of ancient Greece, the Olympics, mythology, philosophy, science, drama, math, and art. In Jewish studies that very same morning, the teacher’s lesson focused on the Hanukkah story. The Greeks were the enemy — Hellenists, pagan purveyors of foreign culture, and athletes focused on the physical world of the gymnasium. No one could accuse her of not paying attention.
How young is too young to address the historic tension between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation? These winter holidays are nothing if not every adult’s opportunity for sidestepping sensitive issues of identity, beliefs, and belonging. We’re so busy navigating tree vs. menorah, eggnog vs. latkes, and sparkly green and red vs. sparkly blue and white that the Jewish vs. Greek conflict is eclipsed.
If Judah Maccabee knocked on our doors on the first night of Hanukkah, he would surely be gratified to see us lighting our menorahs. But what would he think of our English-speaking, American-garbed, acculturated, knowledgeable, and athletically inclined candle-lighters? Would he decry us as Hellenists?
And what would happen if we were catapulted back in time to 163 BCE? Would we all join ardently in the battle of the Hasmoneans to purify the Temple of all alien images? Risk our lives to observe Shabbat, the new moon, and circumcision? Would we be ready to resist the external hegemony of a colonial-like world empire? Or would we be drawn to the tantalizing popular culture that was sweeping across Asia Minor?
Consider the descendants of Judah Maccabee and his brothers, Yochanan, Yonatan, Shimon, and Elazar, who triumphed over the Greek influence. Within several generations, the princes of the Hasmonean dynasty enthusiastically adopted the very accoutrements that their forefathers had so passionately battled. Even they failed to navigate the onslaught of the encroaching outside influences. They bequeathed to their descendants a conflict that led to a failed revolt, driving us into an endless exile carrying the temple’s menorah into Rome on our enslaved backs.
Fast-forward 20 years from that fateful confusing third-grade school day. The two of us are now standing at the base of the Acropolis in Athens. We spend the day transfixed by the breathtaking beauty of the antiquities and the stories they tell. We gingerly weave our way through streets teeming with rivers of tourists as we head across town to Psisi, the kosher restaurant run by Chabad of Athens. Eating kosher in the epicenter of Hellenism takes on a pronounced sense of irony. As we savor the fusion of Jewish and Greek cuisine, we ruminate about the neo-Platonic influences on Maimonides. The Hasmoneans’ struggle for Torah values was shepherded by rabbis and sages into a lasting, living model. It bequeathed to us the dexterity of navigating Athens and Jerusalem. We have become nimble. We can at once study Greek wisdom, appreciate and be immersed in outside culture, and still preserve and practice an authentic vibrant Judaism. What is the answer to that question? Are the Greeks good or bad?