Parashat Miketz/Hannukka: Not everything is relative

What was there about Hellenistic Greek culture which caused Judaism to fight against it so strongly?

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December 20, 2006 11:48

 
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Hanukka, the Festival of Lights, celebrates not only the victory of the Judeans over the Greek-Syrians, but even more fundamentally, the victory of Judaism over Hellenism. What was there about Hellenistic Greek culture which caused Judaism to fight against it so strongly? After all, Greek civilization gave us the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the mathematics of Pythagoras, the theater of Sophocles, the epic poetry of Homer, and the sculpture of Praxiteles. Our great sage Maimonides cites Aristotle with great respect, and his work Shmone Perakim (an introduction to Mishna Avot) is almost a precise translation of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics. Even many people not conversant with the Oedipus Trilogy of Sophocles are aware of the riddle of the Sphinx: What walks on all fours in the morning, on two in the afternoon and on three in the evening? The answer is: Man. Man crawls on all fours as a child, walks upright as an adult, and in old age requires a cane. As C.M. Bowra in his classical work The Greek Mind writes, for the Greeks, man was not only the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx; man was the answer to every human question. The Greeks believed that man was the center of the universe, that man represented perfection. The human form displayed the loftiest expression of art, and human attributes such as power, speed and beauty were idealized in the gods of Mount Olympus. The chorus of the Antigone sings out again and again: "Many are the awesome and the awful creations of the universe, but there is nothing as awesome and awful as man." Indeed, Greek philosophy cried out that "Man is the measure of all things." Judaism has a very different notion, teaching that God - and not man - is the measure of all things. Yes, the human being may be but "a little lower than God, adorned with glory and majesty" as the psalmist declares. But that little difference makes all the difference. If the Greeks created gods in man's image, Judaism offers man the possibility of greatness since he - the human being - is created in God's image! And since God is not physical matter, the Jewish ideals toward which we strive are compassion, freely given love, patience, loving kindness and truth. These are the attributes that God revealed to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7) and we human beings must strive to emulate them. It therefore becomes clear why Hellenism considered circumcision an abomination and forbade the Judeans to practice it: If the human form represents perfection, then tampering with a human organ is sacrilegious. Judaism would insist, however, that we must sanctify and perfect our imperfect, incomplete beings through the Divine commandments; hence, circumcision expresses the very essence of our philosophy. Furthermore, the pantheon of gods and values, ideals and morals with which the Greeks populated their mythological universe was a direct reflection of the variety of human shapes and species they encountered in the world. In effect, the Greek mind pre-dated today's post-modernism, which is based on the idea that there are no absolute values; everyone is right according to his/her point of view. In such a world, a suicide bomber who targets innocent children can be justified as a freedom fighter. Only a Judaism that worships the one God can possibly insist on an absolute moral structure based on "I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage," and "Thou shalt not murder." From this perspective, we can well understand why humanity's first transgression involved eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge of good and evil. On a more simplistic level, that first command seems incomprehensible. The serpent (Gen. 3) declares that at the very moment they eat the fruit, "you shall be like God," which sounds like an added plus. What could possibly be wrong with eating a fruit which gives knowledge? And Eve herself describes the fruit as being "good for food, lustful for the eyes and beneficial for the mind." So why the prohibition? The struggle within Adam and Eve is the struggle between Judaism and Hellenism. Who is to decide what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong? In effect, by eating the fruit Adam and Eve were saying that they wanted to be the ones who decide - after all, it is their lives and they wanted to be masters of their own destiny. However, as Sigmund Freud taught many generations later: every individual is a genius when it comes to rationalizing what he/she wants to do. The Bible is therefore teaching us that there must be an external guide - beyond the individual himself - to declare what is right and what is wrong. God is the center of the universe. So it becomes clear why the stories of Joseph are read during Hanukka. Joseph was hated by his brothers because of his dreams, and the source of the hatred was far deeper than mere jealousy. Joseph dreamt two dreams, the first of "sheaves of grain" and the second about the "orbs of heaven"; his father Jacob also dreamt of a ladder rooted in the earth and extending to the heavens. But despite the similarity of elements, there were key differences: in Jacob's dream, God stood above the ladder, at the very center; in Joseph's dreams, Joseph himself was at the center. Jacob's dream was a Jewish dream whereas Joseph's was a Greek dream. That may well be the deeper reason for the brothers' hatred. It is only many years later, after Joseph is forced into Egypt and suffers many setbacks, that he realizes God is truly at the center of the world. Hence in this week's Torah reading, as Joseph is asked top interpret the dreams of the Pharaoh, the much wiser hero declares before he begins: "That is beyond me; it is God who will respond in accordance with Pharaoh's welfare" (Gen 41:16). The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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