When Non-Negotiables Go Bad

As Susan Perlman’s article shows, discussions in the Jewish community about assimilation are nothing new. In fact, even prior to the Maccabean revolt, the assimilationist vs. non-assimilationist scenario was playing out in soap-opera fashion.  The high priest about 200 B.C. was named Chanan, though he is known to history by a Hellenized Greek name, Onias III. Despite his Greek name, he stood opposed to Hellenism and assimilation. His younger brother Joshua—who styled himself Jason—was cut from another cloth altogether. His slogan could be phrased as something like, “Hellenism Rules!”

Jump ahead 25 years, when there had already been at least a quarter century of debates on assimilation in the Jewish community. In 175 B.C., the Syrian king Antiochus IV came to the throne. Under his rule, corruption set in among Jewish leaders who jockeyed for power to uphold either the assimilationist or the anti-assimilationist platform.

• Jason, the pro-Hellenizer, bribed Antiochus and became the high priest, pushing out his older brother Onias.

• Another fellow named Menelaus came along, who out-Jasoned Jason and could be described as a Hellenizer on steroids. He too bribed Antiochus, who pushed out Jason and installed Menelaus as high priest.

• No friend of anti-Hellenizers, Menelaus then killed off Onias, the first high priest of this period.

• Jason, the more moderate Hellenizer, revolted against Menelaus, tantamount to revolting against Antiochus himself.

It was this last move that caused Antiochus to outlaw Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, and Torah study, and to set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple. And, it must be said, there were many Jews who were happy to go along with all this.

It is against this background that the Maccabees came on the scene. The hero was, of course, Judah. One of Judah’s brothers was Simon, who made himself both priest and nasi, or prince, a king-like office. This, it should be noted, was exactly what the Torah forbade with its “separation of powers” between king, priest, and prophet (see Deuteronomy chapters 17-18). In order to safeguard what he saw as the integrity of the Jewish people—or to shore up his own power?—Simon essentially violated the Torah. Perhaps he was able to justify himself by the history of bribing Antiochus, an action also forbidden in the Torah and the prophets (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:19, 27:25; Psalm 15:5; Isaiah 5:23; and other passages).

Simon’s grandson Alexander Jannaeus (or Yannai) was another “bad seed.” He proclaimed himself king, again contrary to biblical law, since he was not a descendant of King David. Did disregard for the Torah run in the family? Certainly, Alexander was not averse to skirting the commandment, “Thou shalt not murder.” He killed off 6,000 Pharisees in the Temple because the Pharisees, rightly, were upset that the Hasmoneans were both kings and high priests. To show his support for the Sadducees rather than the Pharisees, Alexander refused to take part in the annual “water show” at Sukkot, the same ceremony at which Jesus later declared that he would provide living water (John 7:37-39). The water show was Pharisaic in origin; the Sadducees, not finding it in Scripture, did not approve of it. The common people, however, were pro-Pharisee and enjoyed the water pageantry, and Yannai got himself pelted with etrogim, leading to the slaughter of the 6,000 in the Temple courtyard.

In addition, Yannai crucified 800 other Pharisees and murdered their wives and children while hosting a fashionable dinner party.[1]

Certainly the Maccabees’ approach to Jewish life is debatable.  Susan Perlman’s article posits that the Hasmoneans were acculturated but not assimilated. Indeed, they may have steered a middle course culturally, retaining their Jewish non-negotiables at the same time that they borrowed from Hellenistic culture. Ethically, however, their non-negotiables seem to have not included a commitment to Torah or, in the case of Yannai, even basic decency. More than just cultural non-negotiables are needed in Jewish life.

A Biblical Perspective on Acculturation and Assimilation

We tend to think of assimilation in cultural terms. Are we acting in visibly Jewish ways or not? That is one aspect of the question. But there is a more serious assimilation that Scripture comes to teach us, and that is, assimilating to values that do not reflect the mind and heart of God. We can call this ethical assimilation. It is not too much to say that the Hasmoneans, in flouting basic ethics and Scriptural parameters, had assimilated to the ethical “ways of the world.”

Daniel learned “the language and literature of the Babylonians” (Daniel 1:4) without protest. But he drew the line at violating Scripture’s commandment concerning permissible food: “But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine” (Daniel 1:8).

Paul “became like one not having the law” when among non-Jews (1 Corinthians 9:21), yet he was quick to distance himself from elements of non-Jewish culture that contravened Scriptural ethics (1 Corinthians 5:1-2, for example).

What of Yeshua himself? He participated in Jewish traditions not found in Scripture, such as partaking of cups of wine at Passover, nowhere spoken of in the Torah. Yet he also stood against traditions that contravened Scripture; in Mark 7:9-13, Yeshua drew the line at a tradition that violated the commandment to honor one’s mother and father (see Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16; Matthew 15:4, 19:19; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20).

With these biblical examples, it seems to me, there is no such thing as ethical acculturation, only assimilation. And it is clear which God calls us to.

A Hanukkah Take-Away

One lesson from the story of the Maccabees is that passion for our Jewishness must not outstrip our passion for the kingdom of God. In the acculturation-assimilation debate, the worst assimilation of all is accommodating ourselves to a society that lives as though God does not. 

If I can be indulged an invention of a new proverb, not found in our biblical Book of Proverbs:

Better is a Hellenizing Greek who follows Yeshua

      Than a cultural Jew who disdains God and His Word.

That, at least, is my take-away for this Hanukkah.

[1] The full details are of course more complex; there was virtually civil war in Israel at the time.


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Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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