Tzvi Sinensky

The Vulgarity of the United Nations – and Hanukkah’s Hellenists

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters, September 20, 2023. (AP/Craig Ruttle)

As we celebrate Hanukkah, the United Nations predictably excoriates Israel and downplays Hamas’ evil at every step. But beyond the recent US veto at the Security Council, Israel itself has begun to turn the tables. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Ergan have demanded the resignation of Secretary-General Guterres. Israeli and American lawmakers have hammered UN Women for very belatedly addressing the overwhelming evidence of sexual violence – on October 7 and even beyond. And the IDF regularly posts video evidence of rockets fired near UN-sponsored hospitals and schools, and now civilian safe zones close to UN facilities. If the best defense is a good offense, at the very least Israel is playing this high-stakes game on a more neutral field instead of squarely in enemy territory. 

Amidst the recriminations, it’s worth asking what exactly makes the UN so maddening to us. Virulent antisemitism is obviously bad enough in its own right. But none of us needs be reminded that there are myriad other antisemitic countries and large-scale organizations out there. And in any case, this is an old story; the UN has grossly discriminated against Israel for well over half-a-century, if not closer to seventy-five years. Why do we pay attention anymore? 

Part of it is certainly the UN’s prominent international presence, its direct involvement on the ground in Gaza, and its ugly history with Israel. And the fact that UN antisemitism is predictable doesn’t make it any less dangerous; for this reason alone, it demands a robust response. But there’s something more at play. As it turns out, Israel’s unmasking of the UN’s antisemitism is unexpectedly prefigured by the Hanukkah story. To understand how and to better understand both UN politics and the Hellenists, let’s first unpack a term that is surprisingly relevant to both: vulgarity. 

By all accounts, objections to vulgarity have declined in the West since the 1960s. To the extent it is still in use, the term is most commonly associated with sexual impropriety, swear words, and the like. But as Rabbi Norman Lamm noted in a 1968 sermon, at bottom, vulgarity refers to any act of self-debasement. It is the antithesis of refinement. Rabbi Lamm therefore uses the term “gassut ha-ru’ach,” intellectual or spiritual crudeness, to exemplify vulgarity. The most distressing recent case, he asserted, comes from the United Nations. Pointing to UN protests against an Israeli parade celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, he noted the stunning hypocrisy of the United Nations, especially Secretary General U Thant, who somehow “overlooked” terrorism against Jews but made a point to protest a peaceful if imperfect Zionist military parade. 

Such duplicity, Rabbi Lamm observed, is not just wrong. It is vile and vulgar because it diminishes the integrity of those who put on these piety plays. “The UN,” he concluded, “has become a convention of people who speak in moral categories and intend only political issues… It is vulgar to clothe political strategies in moral terms.”

It is the UN’s vulgar hypocrisy that makes it especially malignant. It’s not just that the institutional culture is venomously antisemitic, as if that weren’t bad enough. The UN also cloaks its Jew-hatred in moral garb. The anti-Israel bias is despicable, but the barefaced quackery might be most morally repugnant of all. 

An appreciation of the vulgarity of deception explains, for example, the Torah’s broad usage of the term “to’eivah,” which may be similarly translated as a vile or vulgar act. Just as the Torah invokes this term in relation to instances of sexual impropriety or idolatry, it also utilizes this phraseology in relation to a shopkeeper who maintains false weights and measures. Many have wondered why the Torah draws this association. Now we can understand. The proprietor who feigns conducting business honestly is an unbecoming hypocrite. She has debased herself in much the same way as one who engages in sexual promiscuity or idolatry. 

The prophet Micha hones in on precisely this point, and in doing so points us toward Hanukkah. On numerous occasions, Micha reams contemporary Jewish leaders for not only taking advantage of commoners but also for doing so with outright hypocrisy. In one place, he decries the prophets as הֹלֵ֥ךְ ר֙וּחַ֙ וָשֶׁ֣קֶר כִּזֵּ֔ב, those who “go about uttering bloated, baseless falsehoods” (2:11). In a particularly telling verse, he declares: 

כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֔ה עַל־הַנְּבִיאִ֖ים הַמַּתְעִ֣ים אֶת־עַמִּ֑י הַנֹּשְׁכִ֤ים בְּשִׁנֵּיהֶם֙ וְקָרְא֣וּ שָׁל֔וֹם וַאֲשֶׁר֙ לֹא־יִתֵּ֣ן עַל־פִּיהֶ֔ם וְקִדְּשׁ֥וּ עָלָ֖יו מִלְחָמָֽה׃ 

Thus said God to the prophets who lead My people astray, who cry “peace” while chewing [the innocent] with their teeth, but launch a war on those who fail to fill their mouths. (3:6)

The prophets call for peace while preying on the very people they claim to protect! Micha’s description sounds eerily familiar. 

But the prophet goes one step further, depicting this hypocrisy as a form of impurity: 

ק֣וּמוּ וּלְכ֔וּ כִּ֥י לֹא־זֹ֖את הַמְּנוּחָ֑ה בַּעֲב֥וּר טָמְאָ֛ה תְּחַבֵּ֖ל וְחֶ֥בֶל נִמְרָֽץ׃

Up and depart! This is no resting place Because of [your] defilement. Terrible destruction shall befall. (2:10)

In other words, by acting with duplicity, the leaders have not only harmed others; they have defiled themselves

Micha’s linkage between hypocrisy and impurity takes us to Hanukkah. These themes figure prominently in the Hanukkah story. The battle between forces of purity and impurity is central to Hanukkah. In Al Hanisim, we thank God for placing the contaminated in the hands of the pure. The Talmud opens its telling of the Hanukkah story by recording that when the Syrian-Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they rendered all the oil impure. The same is true of the fifth stanza of Maoz Tzur, traditionally sung after lighting the Hanukkah candles. According to one passage in the Talmud, an entire process of rededication was necessary to reinstate the Temple worship. So central was purification to the holiday that, as many commentators note, the Jews insisted on acquiring pure oil notwithstanding the fact that, technically speaking, one may perform the Temple service in a state of impurity if no alternative is available. In short, the motif of combating forces of impurity dominates Hanukkah from beginning to end. 

But the Rabbis went further. It is not just that the Greeks rendered the Temple impure; they embodied impurity. In Al Hanisim we thank God for handing the impure in the hands of the pure. Through their philosophy, the Hellenists had rendered themselves impure. 

This, of course, begs the question: why is the theme of impurity – particularly the impurity of the Syrian-Greeks themselves – so central to Hanukkah? Could not a greater emphasis have been placed on the physical survival of the Jews, or perhaps on our commitment to observe the commandments in the face of furious internal and external opposition? 

On one level, it is because idolatry is closely associated with impurity. But there is more beneath the surface. 

On a deeper level, Hellenistic culture elevated the aesthetic to the level of an intrinsic good. In doing so, it ironically debased the sanctity of the human body by rendering it immodest and exhibitionist. From the Rabbinic perspective, the Greeks had degraded human beauty in much the way that bringing idols or swine into the Sanctuary disgraced the Temple. Impurity, in the case of Hanukkah, refers not only to a legal category but also to a state of spiritual self-degradation. 

What is more, hypocrisy is surprisingly relevant to the Hanukkah story. The book of I Maccabees, our earliest historical source for the Hanukkah story, repeatedly emphasizes the motif of disingenuousness. The Jews who, under the sway of the Syrian-Greeks, “made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen,” were also “sold to do mischief” (1:15). In other words, they took money – apparently, to instigate against their fellow Jews. True, they acted out of ideological principle. But a little bribery never hurts just the same. 

I Maccabees similarly reports that after successfully incorporating Judea under his empire, Anitochus Epiphanes IV sent his representative to collect tribute from the Judeans. The tax collector spoke peaceably to the people, “but it was all deceit.” As soon as they entrusted him to enter the city, he “fell suddenly upon the city,” smiting it and “[destroying] many people of Israel” (1:30). Hypocrisy appears prominently in the earliest extant account of the Hanukkah story. 

Perhaps even more striking is the king’s subsequent command: “Antiochus wrote to his whole kingdom, that all should be one people, and everyone should leave his laws” (1:41-42). This is an echo of the earlier accusation of Haman: “Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them’” (Esther 3:8). Under the guise of unity, Antiochus and Haman, the villains of the Hanukkah and Purim stories respectively, utilized guile – murderous machinations cloaked in pious apparel – to persecute the Jews. 

Today’s Jew-haters eerily embody the descriptions in Micha and the book of Maccabees. Advocating for world peace and human rights, they duplicitously endanger those who aspire toward precisely those just causes.  

To counter the UN and defeat our enemies in the court of public opinion, we will need to do precisely what the books of Maccabees and the Rabbinic framers of the holiday sought to achieve: unmask the hypocrisy of our enemies by calling them out, just as Israeli leaders are doing with gusto. To do so not only helps ensure our survival. It also takes the moral high ground, sidestepping the moral gutter into which those who speak from the exalted rostrum of the United Nations have lowered themselves. It is, as Hanukkah reminds us, to choose a life of purity and integrity over one of impurity and vulgarity.  

About the Author
Tzvi Sinensky is Director of the Lamm Heritage Archives, Head of Judaics at Main Line Classical Academy in suburban Philadelphia, and Editor at The Lehrhaus.
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