A friend of my son participates in a local church basketball league. As part of their ministry, after practice one day he was handed a card with what was labeled as an action step. The card read: “Are you following Jesus? If not, who or what are you following?”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the delicious irony that this card was passed out in the days leading up to Chanukkah (although for the record, this is why my kid plays basketball at the JCC).
Thousands of years ago, Jews living in Judea were no doubt challenged with a very similar question about the role of Greek Hellenism in their lives. They too were challenged to decide “what they were going to follow.”
One group of Jews living in ancient Judea adopted various parts of Greek culture. They spoke Greek. They dressed like Greeks. But when it came to Jewish ritual, they made the decision to follow Judaism.
Only according to the Book of I Maccabees (not in the Hebrew Bible, but in the apocrypha), there was also another group. This group of Jews underwent uncircumcision procedures so that they could “fit in” at the Greek gymnasium, which required its adherents to participate nude. They sought the Greek philosophical tradition not as a way of understanding or better appreciating their faith, but as a replacement for Judaism.
For the Maccabees in our Chanukkah story, the response to the challenge of Hellenism was black and white: reject Hellenism entirely. Unfortunately, history shows us how that approach turned out. After one generation of Maccabee founders, their descendants took Greek names and were infamously corrupt.
Instead, the Judaism that endures today is one that is resilient because it enables us to engage with the outside world while also challenging us to establish boundaries. What happens when we play basketball in a church league and are confronted with a card that challenges our faith? To be Jewish in a predominantly non-Jewish society during December is to constantly be reflecting on “what we are following.”
I can’t say that I am entirely disappointed that my son’s friend received this card. I know that for this family, the “action item” prompted an important conversation about what their family does follow and why.
I know this family well. They love to follow basketball. But this Chanukkah, they will also now remember that they follow the God of Israel and the Jewish people.