Culture War, Take Two

THE DISPUTATION

By David Klinghoffer

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.

Homosexual marriage is the hottest but hardly the only issue in the culture war. That struggle pits traditionalists against progressives, with Jews and Christians on each side having — from a certain perspective — more in common with their allies of a different faith than with their opponents who are ostensibly of the same religion. Meanwhile, those of us watching from the sidelines wonder what course the war will take. Will tradition prevail, or will it be crushed by liberalism?

As always, it’s helpful to look at the question from the perspective of history. Has such a culture war been fought before? It has, and quite a long time ago: circa 167 B.C.E.

The story is told in the Apocrypha, specifically the First and Second Books of Maccabees. Reading along, you can’t help but think of our own time.

The situation was this: Jewish Palestine was in the hands of the Greek kingdom of the Seleucids, headquartered in Syria under the rule of the tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes. A Jewish elite in Jerusalem with social-climbing ambitions, wishing to emulate the Greeks with their cosmopolitan culture (Hellenism), arranged to purchase the high priesthood through the good offices of Antiochus. The Hellenist Jason thus became kohen gadol (high priest) and immediately began introducing elements of Greek secularism in the fields of athletics and education.

At first, the effects of Hellenism were enjoyed, as the historian Peter Green puts it in his classic work, “Alexander to Actium,” only by “a select club of progressive Hellenizers,” a “specially favored cosmopolitan class dedicated to social and political self-advancement,” seeking “sociopolitical privilege and status.”

This Jewish elite exercised in the new Greek gymnasium — naked discus throwing was the sport of choice. When not sporting in the buff, Jewish priests abandoned their sacerdotal duties and donned the latest Greek fashions. Embarrassed by the traditional ways of their ancestors, the smart set even went so far as to have their circumcisions effaced through a cosmetic surgery.

But Jason was still restrained by the outmoded pieties and finally was replaced by Menelaus as the new high priest. The latter opened Jerusalem’s gates to his Greek patron, Antiochus, who sacked the Temple treasury (where poor Jews had their money on deposit). The radicalized party of Menelaus applauded as Antiochus outlawed Judaism altogether. Books of the Torah were burned, circumcision became a capital crime and a pig was offered on a new pagan altar in the Temple itself.

The Hellenizers did everything but institute gay marriage.

Am I wrong to compare progressives of today with those who sparked the Jewish rebellion 167 years before the Common Era, a rebellion that we recall at Chanukah? Of course it is the victory of the religious fundamentalists — who defied Antiochus and his pet Jewish progressives with their “liberal polytheism,” as Green puts it — that we as Jews celebrate.

Actually the comparison is entirely apt. The parallels are obvious. They also lead to an interesting prediction about how our own culture war will work out.

Then, as now, the conflict pitted secular values (the gymnasium, immodest dress, or lack of dress, and other Greek fashions) against traditional religious values. Then as now, sex was a central issue for the progressives. Why else make such a fuss about circumcision, a mark on the male organ serving the purpose of sobering up the Jewish man when he is about to do something sexually inappropriate?

Then, as now, the progressives were driven as much by social ambition as by principle. For many liberals, one’s politics serve as proof that unlike your poor ignorant immigrant grandparents, you get it. Sure, you’re still a proud Jew, but like George and Louise Jefferson, you are movin’ on up. You are as sophisticated in your social views as anyone who isn’t the grandchild of poor ignorant immigrants. For Jews especially, caught in the web of ethnic anxiety, liberalism is the comforting potion you swig to remind yourself you’re as good as your fanciest gentile neighbors.

So it was and so it is. Where then will it end? The fact that liberalism for many is a function of social ambition and status anxiety happens to be the fatal flaw of progressivism as a political philosophy. Its followers think they are all die-hard believers in the lefty cause, but are they? They weren’t in 167 B.C.E., which is why the forces of Jewish tradition prevailed.

As Professor Green writes, the conservatives “were stronger, and more numerous, and the more passionate in their beliefs: they stood firm in the face of odds, and were prepared to make sacrifices, indeed to die, for what they held most dear. Even the most energetic and seductive Hellenizing propaganda failed to soften the vast majority of Jerusalem’s religious fanatics.”

So it was. So it is. And in all likelihood, so it will be.

David Klinghoffer is author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday). He can be reached at klinghoffer@forward.com.



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