In the days of the Maccabees Greek culture posed a major threat to Jewish identity, especially when it reached the highest echelons of Jewish leadership. Those who went along with everything in the Greek cultural armoury were mit’yav’nim, “Jewish Hellenisers”.
The Second Book of Maccabees reports that an impious high priest “abolished the lawful way of life and introduced practices which were against the law. He lost no time in establishing a sports stadium at the foot of the citadel itself, and he made the most outstanding of the young men assume the Greek athlete’s hat… The priests no longer had any enthusiasm for their duties at the altar… They placed no value on their hereditary dignities, but cared above everything for Hellenic honours.”
This was going too far, but it illustrates the tug-of-war that comes when there is a pull in two directions – towards modernism and towards tradition. Some go too far in either direction – towards extreme traditionalism and towards extreme anti-traditionalism. The middle of the road always tends to favour a compromise, but then the issue becomes how much of the new idiom and philosophy to adopt without destroying the tenets and practices of tradition. In short, where to stop, where to say Dayyenu!
It is today’s problem too, even in Israel. Jews of all shades of opinion utilise many aspects of modernity (ask yourself, for example, how many cellphones there are amongst the charedim, the ultra-orthodox) but there comes a moment, indeed there are many moments, when one has to have the moral courage to be like our father Abraham, of whom tradition says, “The whole world was on one side whilst Abraham stood on the other”.