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    The Mit’yav’nim

    The rabbinic sages have nothing but scorn for the mit’yav’nim, the Jews who wanted to be more Greek than the Greeks. When Jews wanted to adjust to Hellenistic ways, Joshua became Jason and young gymnasts tried to efface their circumcision.

    No wonder Chanukah is still so popular, because – at least in some circles – it enables Jews to show that they have a colourful festivity to rival Christmas and some families go in for the Chanukah Man and the Maccabee Tree. At the same time there are serious gentile attempts to adopt Jewish practices as diverse as the Chanukah candles and the Passover Seder. An elderly rabbi I knew used to shake his head in confusion. “The Yidden want to be goyim, and the goyim want to be Yidden!” he muttered, amazed at the paradox.

    Some of the Jews in the days of Antiochus even thought that it was doing the community harm by maintaining its separateness. The First Book of the Maccabees (1:14) reports that some of the people “went out from the midst of Israel and stirred up the masses, saying, ‘Let us covenant with the nations around us, for since we have turned aside from their ways many grave troubles have occurred”. It was not just in superficial things that they wanted to be like everyone else, but in art, literature, theology and philosophy.

    Jewish history has encountered many cultures and pondered whether and how far Judaism could live with them. Some went to extremes: in both directions, total acceptance of the environment and complete retreat from it. Both extremes had their negative effects on Jewish identity, but both added to the debate about how far Judaism can adapt to the world and how far, to use Samson Raphael Hirsch’s famous words, it is possible to adapt the standards of the world to the criteria of Judaism.

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