No to assimilation, yes to acculturation

Not all Hellenized Jews were eager to jettison their Jewish faith.

Alexandria jews 298 (photo credit: Ann Sperry/HUCSM)
Alexandria jews 298
(photo credit: Ann Sperry/HUCSM)
On Hanukka Jews not only celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the foreign Hellenist Greek-Syrians who oppressed them. The struggle to reclaim Judaism from the clutches of tyranny was also a civil war that pitted Jew against Jew, traditionalist versus those who sympathized with the program of Seleucid king Antiochus IV. The survival of the sanctity and authority of Torah law was at stake. Under the outstanding leadership of Judah and his brothers, the forces of Hellenism were held at bay. Beyond the events of Hanukka, however, there is a truth that has been forgotten: not all Hellenized Jews were eager to jettison their Jewish faith. In fact, many Jews who were Greek-speaking in the Diaspora were proud of the Torah and of their Jewish heritage. Despite the influences of Hellenism, these Jews developed a Jewish faith and culture that did not advocate total assimilation into Greek society and Greek ways. The best example of such a community can be found in the history of the forgotten Jews of ancient Alexandria. Jews first settled in the Egyptian port city founded by Alexander the Great in the third century BCE. Life under the leadership of the Hellenistic Ptolemy kings was, for the most part, good. The successes of the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria are borne out in the wellknown Letter of Aristeas. This letter was attributed to a pagan courtier in the employ of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BCE) but the author was most definitely a Jewish intellectual living in Alexandria. We know this because the Letter of Aristeas depicts both the Jews of Alexandria and those in Jerusalem in a glowing light. The text recounts the efforts of King Ptolemy to acquire a copy of the text of the sacred writing of the Jews for his great library in Alexandria: The Hellenistic king of Egypt sends a delegation to Judea to expedite his plans. Eleazar, the high priest in the Jerusalem Temple, sends back a group of 72 scholars to translate the holy texts of the Jewish faith into Greek. Upon arriving in Egypt, Ptolemy is overwhelmed by the genius of his Jewish guests. He sends them all to the island of Pharos where each scholar working independently produces an identical translation of the Torah into Greek. THE LETTER of Aristeas is the stuff of legend. Yet, it tells us much about the Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria. They numbered perhaps 250,000 in ancient times and were deeply committed to their Jewish faith. While there are examples of Jews who abandoned their beliefs for paganism, most of the Hellenized Jews of Alexandria were not turncoats. Behind the legend of the Letter of Aristeas is the story of a community of believers who eagerly wanted a translation of the Torah - and later the rest of the Bible - because they cherished their beliefs and wanted to understand the holy texts of Judaism. The translation of the Bible, dubbed the Septuagint after the 72 scholars who translated the texts, is one of history's most important translations because it allowed pagans to read the Hebrew Bible for the first time and led to the propagation of early Christianity. In the end, however, the translation first and foremost met the needs of a Jewish community that was growing in importance and wanted to know how to present their beliefs to the pagans around them. One of the great feats of the Jews of Alexandria, besides building a great synagogue known throughout the Middle East for its grandeur, was the Hellenized Jews' ability to adopt Greek literary genres and fashion Jewish drama, history, philosophy and epic poetry based on those genres. Ezekiel, an Alexandrian Jew, penned a drama on Moses and the Exodus from Egypt based on the dramas of Aeschylus and Euripides. In the realm of epic poetry, the Jew Theodotus composed a poem based on the biblical account of the rape of Dinah, Jacob's daughter. One of the great novels of the Jews of Alexandria was also based on a Bible theme, the story of the love between Joseph and Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. It is obvious that while the author wanted to entertain his audience, he was also rooting the Jews of Egypt into the pre-Hellenistic past of the Pharaohs. Hellenized Jews wrote the history of the Jewish kings of Israel and Judah, using Herodotus and Thucydides as their models. Of course, the most prominent Hellenized Jewish thinker was Philo, one of the first Jews to attempt to reconcile the Torah with philosophy. The Jews of Alexandria, while highly influenced by the spread of Hellenism, were never shy to proclaim their pride in being Jews. Far from hiding their origins, they boasted about their roots, fought for citizenship, and were eager to support their brethren in the Land of Israel despite living in the Diaspora. The lesson for us is clear. While the Hanukka celebration paints a picture of saintly Torah-true Jews versus evil and oppressive Hellenists, not every Jew influenced by Greek civilization was a renegade and a traitor. In fact, the Jews of the ancient Diaspora were so loyal to their faith that they staged uprisings against their Roman masters in 115 CE. The Romans, who wrested control of Egypt from the Ptolemies, brutally suppressed the uprisings, destroying the Great Synagogue of Alexandria and the culture that was a part of it. Jews today, like their ancestors in Alexandria, can be influenced by the world around them, adopt the ideas of surrounding culture, yet remain loyal Jews and not completely assimilate. We can live in both worlds and make a success of that situation. That is an important message for any Jew in modern times who wants to be both a civilized person and a true believer. The writer is a lecturer in Jewish history in the adult education programs at Broward Community College and Nova Southeastern University, both in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.