Tuesday, December 20, 2011


After the division of the empire of Alexander the Great, not so long ago, the influence of Hellenic culture didn't cease among conquered nations. In fact it increased. The Greek rulers used Hellenism as a bond between the people, thus connecting them and assuring Greek control. Most of the pagan world was very open to this new trend.
At first the Greeks didn’t push their philosophy or wage religious wars in order to spread their culture. They considered it attractive enough for all nations to accept without the use of force. The nations of the world saw this Hellenization process as a positive step toward becoming part of the leading civilization of the world. This was true for all nations except for one – the Jewish nation. But there were other exceptions…

Initially the Seleucid Greeks, under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, didn’t see the Jewish religion as a threat to their goals. Interestingly, it was some of the Jews under the leadership of the Greek-appointed high priest Menelaus who recognized that Judaism and its Torah was the stumbling block on the road to “civilization.” The modern among the Jews knew that as long as there would exist even the smallest group of devoted Jews who would stick to their principles, i.e., observe the commandments in the Torah, it would be impossible to “civilize” the rest of them. They went to Antiochus to present the issue and to ask for appropriate laws to resolve the problem. That’s how the road to Maccabean wars was paved.

The Hellenizers’ goal was not to erase the memory of the Jewish nation. They considered themselves to be the proud leaders of an ancient people with a great history! But that’s what it was! History! Now, however is the time for change, for forward progress, toward ... what?

The Greek world contained many philosophic streams of thought. From the followers of Diogenes — refusing the good of the modern world — to the followers of Epicurus — seeking any possible pleasure by any means. Between these streams of thought there were a variety of others. Most of the elements of the Hellenistic culture were concentrated, however, on the human as the object of adoration — almost religiously worshiped. Religion was in servitude to the center of existence and the most perfect of this existence was – the human body.

Greek temples were not as important to the Greeks as the stadiums and gyms. At the arenas and sport halls, the human body was celebrated. Sport competition satiated the natural desire for pride and haughtiness. Sport was the leading element of the Greek popular culture. Competition between athletes and sports teams bonded the various populations and cultures under Greek rule when fans of different heroes and teams united under the colors representing them. It was not the Greeks who invented theaters and competition, but they were certainly the first who used them in such a grand scale.

The Olympics started in Olympia on the Peloponnesian peninsula. From that time on, other than with wars and religion, there was no better technique for politicians to distract the minds of their subjects. But this is not the topic of this essay.

So … Jewish Hellenizers convinced Antiochus to issue laws prohibiting the performance of the essential commandments of the Torah, being aware that as long as the Jews would keep to the core of their religion there could not be complete assimilation. However, this strategy was really one of the last steps on the road toward Hellenization. The first steps were established well before that. Building the stadiums and the gyms, organizing sport teams, accustoming the Jewish population to viewing the uncovered body, and other strange and non-Jewish behavioral patterns were implemented with the help of so-called “Jewish leaders.”

Some of the Yidden at that time — many called them “Chassidim — escaped with their families to the desert. They escaped from what was the first religious persecution in history. “Jewish” and Greek officers traveled from town to town to make sure that Jews would no longer be attached to their faith. That was, in fact, how they came to Modiin.

There, Mattisyahu and his sons organized what is referred to in the history books as the “Maccabee revolt.” We know the rest of the story. The Maccabee’s fought for independence in order to strengthen and continue Jewish loyalty to the Torah of Moshe — and restored the Temple service.

Since that time, even in later periods when the Romans wanted to build a stadium in the Holy City, the attempt to secularize the Jews caused tension, turmoil, and opposition from the devoted Jews. The Romans finally succeeded, but with the trowel in one hand and a sword in the other, and only with the support, again, of Romanized Jews.

At the end of the 19th century, “Hellenizers and Romanizers” of that century created the first in the so-called modern era “Jewish” sport clubs. It is obvious where the influence and inspiration came from, but yes, it was the modern Olympic Games. They called the clubs with some of the historic Jewish names and Hebrew words: Gibbor, Hakoach, Bar Kochba, and … Maccabi.

It is hard to imagine the irony in giving the name “Maccabi” to a competitive sport club. It is as if the Indians would call the American army “liberators.” Like an early colonist calling the Britons “the defenders of freedom.” Like calling a concentration camp a summer colony!

Like calling … I can go on and on!

For more on this subject, please see my essay on sport and exercise posted last week.

Matys Weiser

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