Archbishop Elpidophoros and Rabbi Marans of AJC discuss the “Festival of Lights” and the victory of the Maccabee Martyrs over King Antiochus IV Epiphanes
New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Hannukah, the Jewish festival of lights, celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE), which vanquished the emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
With a view of what Jews and Greeks share, such as the commemoration of the Maccabee Martyrs, albeit on different dates, His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, leader of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and Rabbi Noam Marans, engaged in the AJC livestream “Hanukkah, Greeks, and Jews: A Conversation with Archbishop Elpidophoros – AJC Advocacy Anywhere.”
The Hanukkah conversation, a presentation of the digital program of the AJC on December 14 covered the topics of rising antisemitism, Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics, the strong cooperative bond between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, and Orthodox Christian-Jewish relations and faith during this challenging holiday, took place in an atmosphere of unity.
His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros and Rabbi Marans, AJC Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, radiated harmony, respect and reason in their talk, leaving viewers not only more knowledgeable but with a mellow feeling, difficult to achieve in this time of pandemic devastation and political disunity.
Archbishop Elpidophoros made key to the discussion the fact that Greeks and the Jewish people are alike in many ways, including their history of oppression at the hands of Others. He also nicely made the point that the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) is of basic importance for the Orthodox Christian liturgical calendar by pointing out that the Orthodox Christians also commemorate the Maccabees as martyrs. He visited the example of the Maccabees frequently.
Without getting too scholarly, the Archbishop kept everything understandable for laymen. Rather than using the word Byzantine, the Archbishop kept “Greek” at the forefront, perhaps thereby avoiding a long digression that might have been confusing to many viewers.
He spent time on the important subject of the historic Jewish community of Thessaloniki and mentioned his time as a student in Thessaloniki, making the city and its inhabitants relatable to Americans. He also alluded in positive terms to the earlier Jews of Greece, the Romaniotes. Archbishop Elpidophoros alluded only once to the Russians, mentioning two modern emigré saints of WW II.
In short, His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros struck the perfect note for an Orthodox Christian and Jewish audience.
After receiving Hanukkah wishes, in Hebrew, from Archbishop Elpidophoros (whose Hebrew pronunciation Rabbi Marans said was “terrific”, Rabbi Marans said, “For Orthodox Christians, perhaps more than other Christians, the festival of Hanukkah is more familiar. In fact, I’ve noted that in your editions of the Bible, there are more books of the Maccabees than in other editions of the Bible.” For the Jews, he said, each story from the 2nd century BC is about religious liberty, pluralism, the battle of the balance between the inside world and the outside world, and the great miracle of the oil that lasted for seven days, long enough to re-dedicate the Temple.
Rabbi Maran asked Archbishop Elpidophoros what the Hannukah festival is about from the Orthodox Christian perspective.
Archbishop Elpidophoros answered, “We, the Orthodox Christians, come from the same context, so we celebrate all of the great figures of the Jewish Bible as Saints in our Church. Elias, Moses, Abraham, Hannah, and others all have feast days on our liturgical calendar, and we commemorate the Holy Seven Maccabean Martyrs on August 1.” The story of Hannukah is part of the Greek Orthodox Bible. The Books Maccabees I, II and III are part of our Old Testament, and Maccabees IV is included as an appendix. This is called the Canon of Scripture.
“At the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we have the Relics of Solomoni, who according to tradition, is the mother of the Maccabean Martyrs,” said the Archbishop, “She
is so close to my heart from the 25 years I was in service at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople.”
He explained the Maccabean Revolt as we understand it. “160 years before the birth of Christ, Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted—as did future Roman emperors—to turn the people away from their faith and impose pagan worship and customs on them. He placed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem and attempted to force the local Jewish population to worship it, which was, of course, unacceptable. The faithful believers of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob resisted this attempt and began the revolt that led to the reconsecration of the Temple that the Feast of Hannukah celebrates.”
“In the resistance of the Maccabees,” he continued, “we and the other Orthodox Christians see the same type of zeal that the early Christian martyrs demonstrated. They both resisted the idolatry and polytheism the pagan state attempted to impose on them, and both were willing to sacrifice their lives for the one and true God, Yahweh. Because of these close associations, the early Christians strongly identified with the Maccabees. Christians and Jews together should always oppose any attempt to impose a belief system on someone else whether the belief system is religious or secular.” As Orthodox Christians, he said, we believe that an imposed belief will never be permanent, whereas a faith that is chosen will always be permanent.
“These heroes of faith indicate how much Jews and Greeks share,” he continued, “We also celebrate the lengthy history of Jewish communities in Greece, the so-called Romaniotes and the Sephardic communities of Thessaloniki, who both suffered so much together with the Greek people, under the Nazi Occupation of Greece. So, throughout history, we are two people who have been steadfast in the face of adversity. We are two peoples who have resisted oppression and are willing to sacrifice even our lives for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Although in Greece the numbers of victims of the Holocaust were small, the percentages were among the highest in terms of the great losses. “Those diaspora communities continue to thrive here in the US, in Israel, and in the smaller communities of Greece to this day,” said Rabbi Marans. The word “diaspora” is telling, said the Archbishop, “Both the Jews and Greeks have gone through bad times, both have had to leave their countries to go elsewhere to establish ourselves, so we have so many things in common.”
Rabbi Marans brought the topic to the eastern Mediterranean, saying that today, perhaps more than ever, faith and geopolitics are not easily separated out. “The eastern Mediterranean is simultaneously a place of great challenge, and also opportunity. On the one hand we have Turkey, which has been aligning with Russia and Iran, perhaps playing a bad actorrole in the region, notably in Syria,
And of course, in this country. Turkey is very important to the Greek Orthodox and to Orthodox Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, because Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, for hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians with whom you and His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew identify.” Rabbi Marans brought up the “challenging news” of the change in the status of Haghia Sophia, moving it from the public domain back to a mosque, when it originally was an Orthodox cathedral. And “the very good news” in the eastern Mediterranean in terms of the relationship between Israel, Greece and Cyprus. “Under the leadership and coordination of the US, we now have the US Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act known as the East Med Act, which we supported together with our Hellenic-American partners, including HALC (Hellenic American Leadership Council), which lifted the arms embargo on Cyprus and set up the US Eastern Mediterranean Energy Center to facilitate these new relationships. We consider these to be dramatic events in the relationship between the US, Israel and Cyprus.”
the Rabbi asked Archbishop Elpidophoros for his reflections on this “tale of two cities, and tale of two regions, on this balance between some challenging news and some very good news as it relates to faith and geopolitics.”
Thanking him for the introduction of this topic, Archbishop replied, “It is not a coincidence that the challenge today in the eastern Mediterranean is expressed
as anti-Semiticbehavior and antichristian behavior, so we have more in common than we think.” that facing the common challenge of powers expressing their anti-Semitic convictions and anti-Christian behavior brought us closer together, is good news is especially since the landscape in Turkey is, indeed, fast-changing.
“One cannot overstate the difficult condition in which our ecumenical pathway of hate operates today in Turkey,” the Archbishop said, talking about Aghia Sophia and the Theological School of Halki.“One has to look no further than, as you said, the decision of the president to reconvert Aghia Sophia, which was a museum before, with all citizens in Turkey equally represented in the public sphere. Now we see a state and a decision of an administration which claims the rights of a conqueror, which is really unimaginable.
“Today, in the 21st century, we are still talking about conquerors and the right to conquer:prayer in Aghia Sophia is led by a religious officer holding a sword,a weapon, in his hand …how can someone holding a sword, an imam leading a prayer hold a weapon?
Watch the entire conversation: