Assimilation or Acculturation?
What Hanukkah Has to Show Us
If you listen to the Jewish experts, they all seem to agree on one thing: one of the greatest threats to Jewish survival is assimilation.
Some say that assimilation is a result of intermarriage and are quick to point out that the rate of Jewish-Gentile marriages is on the rise. For others, assimilation is the consequence of “conversion”—Jews adopting another religion and disappearing into the new faith group. All are of one voice in saying that assimilation is not a good thing for us Jews.
Recently, though, I read a quote by a well-known Jewish historian that stopped me in my tracks. In 1966, the late Gershon D. Cohen gave a commencement address at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was Chancellor and Professor of History. Cohen delivered this stunner:
To a considerable degree, the Jews survived as a vital group and as a pulsating culture because they changed their names, their language, their clothing and with them some of their patterns of thought and expression. This ability to translate, to re-adapt and re-orient themselves to new situations, while retaining a basic inner core of continuity was largely responsible if not for their survival, at least for their vitality…. Assimilation properly channeled and exploited can thus become a kind of blessing, for assimilation bears within it a certain seminal power which serves as a challenge and a goad to renewed creativity.
On first blush, the above quote sounds illogical, if not shocking. Yet, on reflection, I’m not sure that Cohen is really talking about assimilation as most Jews would understand it. According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), assimilation is “the absorption into an alternative culture by way of abandoning one’s own.” This doesn’t seem to be Cohen’s understanding of the word.
Three Famous Jews
The Bible gives us portraits of Jewish figures like Joseph who connected well with other cultures. Yet was Joseph really assimilated when he rose to a position of great influence in the government of ancient Egypt? After all, when his brothers stood before him, the years hadn’t erased his understanding of their Hebrew-language conversation.
Or would we say that Esther assimilated into a foreign culture when she married the Persian king? The Midrash on Esther seems to say “no” when it posits that Esther employed seven sets of servants—one for each day of the week—so that she could observe the Sabbath without anyone realizing that she was doing anything different on that day!
Many centuries later, Paul addressed the Greeks of Ephesus using terminology that they could understand and appreciate. He did the same with his own Jewish people, explaining that his varied approach was actually a good thing:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law (1 Corinthians 9:20-21).
There is something other than assimilation that all three of these biblical characters epitomize. That is cultural adaptation or acculturation. The USCJ, quoted above, defines acculturation as “the adoption of foreign ideas, mores, and institutions and their adaptation into the existing culture.” It appears that while Joseph, Esther and Paul acculturated into their three non-Jewish worlds, they did not lose their Jewish identity, their core. In fact, we know from the Bible that when their help was needed, they were able to come to the aid of their people and be a major factor in our continued survival. While that might seem more apparent in the cases of Joseph and Esther, I believe this also applies to Paul, who devoted his life—at the risk of death—to bringing the message of spiritual life to other Jews.
Maybe what Cohen calls “properly channeled” assimilation should better be seen as acculturation.
But where do we draw the line between acculturation and assimilation? How do we know when we have moved from something that is “good for the Jews” to something that is not?
A look at one of the most popular holidays celebrated by our people today might give us some insights.
The Hanukkah Connection
Hanukkah is often thought of as the celebration of the victory of the Maccabees in 165 B.C. over the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV, who sought to Hellenize the Jews and outlaw the practice of the Jewish religion. The holiday includes the recounting of how this small band of guerilla fighters heroically triumphed over the large Syrian army and retook the Temple in Jerusalem, cleansing it and rededicating it as the place of Jewish worship. They then celebrated a belated Sukkot for eight days in December of that year.
Today, the holiday is also marked by the lighting of the hanukkiah for eight days and nights, the giving of gifts, the game of dreidel, dispensing chocolate gelt and eating latkes and sufganiyot (fried donuts)—all ways of celebrating the Maccabean victory and the reclaiming of the Temple.
But in a real sense, Hanukkah tells another story—the story of traditional Jews who were fighting against the widespread assimilation of our people into Greek culture. The Maccabees believed that if successful, this assimilation would spell the end of the Jews as a distinct people.
It was not just a fight against the Syrian oppressors, but also against other Jews who had gone the assimilationist route. Some Jews of that day had taken Greek names, chosen to study in Greek institutions, participated in the gymnasium games, even sacrificed on Greek altars.
In a famous story, we learn that possibly the first Jewish blood spilled at the time was the work of another Jew. In the book of First Maccabees, a Hellenistic Jew in the town of Modin attempted to offer a sacrifice on a Greek altar. He was killed on the spot by the zealous Mattathias, head of a priestly family. It was Mattathias’ sons, led by Judah Maccabee, who led the ensuing revolt.
Yet ironically, the victors retained some aspects of the Greek way of life even after the Syrian invaders left. Their kings adopted Greek-sounding names, as did those whom they governed. Their decision to commemorate Hanukkah purely as a military-victory holiday was Greek in its origin, not Jewish. The Hasmoneans—another name for the Maccabees and their descendants, in honor of their ancestor Asmonaeus—would have characterized themselves as acculturated rather than assimilated Jews. The difference is that they would have insisted on certain non-negotiables in the area of Jewish identity, certainly including circumcision and Temple worship.
Are there any parallels in Jewish life today when it comes to assimilation or acculturation? More specifically, can we learn something as Jews who are followers of Yeshua?
Messianic Jews and Assimilation
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked by other Jews, “Why don’t you just call yourself a Christian?” The underlying accusation in that question is simply, “As a believer in Jesus you are no longer a Jew, so make it easier on all of us and just assimilate into the non-Jewish world.”
My response must be a resounding, “No!” to that unspoken comment. I didn’t come to believe in Jesus because of a desire to assimilate. If anything, it could have been a stumbling block if I thought that by following Yeshua I would have to give up my Jewishness! What a relief it was to know that the two were not incompatible.
Assimilation should not be an option for Jewish believers in Jesus on several counts.
One, we’re born Jews and we’ll die Jews—that is a fact. It is part of our DNA and trying to be anything else is as pointless as a horse trying to be a cow. They may both walk on four legs, but the horse will never produce milk the same way the cow does.
Two, our Jewishness and faith in Yeshua are compelling parts of our story to the rest of the Jewish community. It’s important to show that faith in Jesus and a commitment to maintaining a Jewish identity are not mutually exclusive categories.
Three, assimilation is not viable, because it undermines our status as a “faithful remnant.” As that remnant, we are evidence that God is at work among our Jewish people today: “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” (Romans 11:5)
Acculturation, on the other hand, has been recognized as acceptable for our Jewish people inside and outside the land of Israel, whether we are believers in Yeshua, atheists, or Modern Orthodox. We go to the theater, work out at the gym, and attend universities—all of which, by the way, are Greek institutions. We speak in the language of our host country. With exceptions such as “Christopher” or “Mary Elizabeth,” we often have names that are not discernably Jewish.
Acculturation is not the same as assimilation. As Jewish believers in Yeshua, it is important that we have our own list of non-negotiables just as the Hasmoneans did.
So …what are your non-negotiables that resonate with your Jewish core? Do you do certain things, or refrain from them, because of your commitment to a Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world? Are there certain traditions you honor? Philosophies you hold? Company you keep? What is the relationship between your Jewishness and how you see Israel? Between you and the rest of the Jewish world?
Louise Keho, in an ad sponsored by the American Jewish Committee on the theme of “What Being Jewish Means To Me,” said:
As a Jew, I belong to an enormous, venerable, worldwide family, whose tragedies I mourn because they are my own, and whose triumphs I celebrate—often with shameless immodesty—as though they were those of a beloved sister or brother.
Do you resonate with that sentiment?
 An excerpt from “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History,” the commencement address at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York by its Chancellor Emeritus and Professor of History, the late Dr. Gershon D. Cohen. Italics added.
 The commemoration of the lights burning on the Temple menorah only became an aspect of the holiday at a later date.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.