By Shlomo Riskin
The festival of Chanukah celebrates the military victory of the Judeans over the Hellenist Syrians in the second century BCE, as recorded in the Al Hanissim thanksgiving prayer added to our Amida prayers and Grace after Meals for the eight days of the holiday. The festival also celebrates the ideological victory of Judaism over Greek Hellenism, as symbolized in the kindling of the Menorah, the Holy Temple candelabrum signifying “the illumination which is Torah.” Hence we were engaged in a two-pronged struggle; a national war of independence against the heirs of the military conqueror Alexander the Great, and a spiritual Kulturkampf against the wisdom of ancient Greece, with which that same Alexander wished to dominate the entire civilized world at that time.
Moreover, as is clear from the historical writings of Flavius Josephus and the Apocryphal Books of the Maccabees, the enemies who were vanquished were not only the gentile Syrians but also the Jewish secular assimilationists, especially the ruling priestly aristocracy who had become bitten by the “bug” of Hellenistic culture and who wished to transform Judea into a Greek city-state (See Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews).
But why the objection to Greek culture? The Dialogues of Plato deal with the most fundamental ethical and moral issues affecting human conduct.
Maimonides himself was a great devotee of Aristotle; the theater of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus influenced literature and psychology to this very day (Shakespeare and Freud); the mathematics of Pythagoras and Euclid opened the doors to modern physics; and the sculptor Praxiteles served as an inspiration for Michelangelo. Do not many of the rabbis of the Midrash praise the vision of “the aesthetic beauty of Greek culture dwelling within the Godly tents of Shem” (Yalkut Shimoni, Noah 61)?
So, whence the great ideological clash between Judaism and Hellenism?
While it is possible to glean great wisdom and true enlightenment from serious study of Greek culture, the major principle at the core of Hellenism, which is directly antithetical to Judaism, must be recognized and fought against. You will remember the riddle of the Sphinx, the conundrum that only Oedipus could answer and thereby gain the keys to the kingdom of Thebes: Who walks on “four” in the morning, on “two” in the afternoon and on “three” at night? The answer is of course the human being, who crawls in the morning of his life, walks upright in the afternoon of his life, and walks only with the aid of a cane in the evening of his life. The renowned classicist C.M. Bowra points out that the human being is not only the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx; the human being is the answer to every question asked by the Greek mind. The human form is perfect, and “human beings are the measure of all things” (Protagoras).
Judaism, on the other hand, while recognizing the unique qualitative supremacy of the human being over all other creatures, nevertheless insists that “the human being is but a little lower than God, and is crowned with honor and glory” (Psalms 8:5). That “little lower” is of critical significance; indeed, it is the distance between Heaven and Earth. For Judaism, therefore, it is not man who is the measure of all things but it is rather God who is the measure, and ultimate guide, for all human endeavors and for the human personality.
Hence, the eighth commandment of the Bible, as categorized by Maimonides in his Book of Commandments, is that we emulate God’s personality traits (as it were) as best as we can in accordance with the verse “you shall walk in His ways” (Deut. 28:9), and just as God is described as compassionate so must you be compassionate, just as God is described as giving love without cause, so must you give love without cause… just as God does acts of loving-kindness, so must you (Ex. 34:6-7).
On the basis of this distinction between Hebraism and Hellenism, it is no wonder that the pantheon of gods on Mount Olympus, according to Greek mythology, were all “people writ large”; each of whom was emphasized and expressed in larger than human terms.
Zeus the god of power, Hermes the god of speed, Aphrodite the goddess of beauty, etc.; the gods of Greece were created in the image of humans. And so there was also Dionysus, the god of debauchery and licentiousness; and so there is no absolute morality, no single group of moral principles which must be observed by all. Thus, for Jews, idealizing physical animalistic traits — like power, speed and beauty — is idolatry.
From this perspective, we will be able to better understand the very first commandment God gave to Adam and Eve, the commandment not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. The human being is given free choice in every realm of life, but God demands that the human subject himself to God’s definition of good — the seven universal laws of morality.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.