Parshat Miketz: ‘Greek wisdom’

"The Lord shall broaden and beautify Japheth, and he [or perhaps He] shall dwell in the tents of Shem," (Genesis 9:27).

parasha Hanukka_521 (photo credit: Picture from the Parsha.)
parasha Hanukka_521
(photo credit: Picture from the Parsha.)
Why is there no clear religious prohibition against the study of Greek wisdom and intellectual involvement in philosophy, mathematics, the sciences, secular music, art, literature and theater?
Why was no prohibition made against the study of all the expressions of Greek culture which we know as Hellenism? Hanukka does not merely celebrate our military victory over an enemy that wished to remove political independence from Judea. Our main celebration is the lighting of the hanukkia, the stylized “tree of life.” This ceremony makes the statement that “the candle is commandment, and Torah is our light” (Proverbs 6: 23), that it is not human reason but rather God’s will and miracles – as in the small cruse of oil only sufficient to last for one day but lasted for eight – that must direct human affairs and activities.
According to this view, the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are right, at least as far as banning university studies is concerned.
This is precisely the meaning they read into the biblical verse “The Lord may broaden and glorify Japheth [Greece and Greek wisdom], but only He [the Lord, without Greek wisdom] may dwell in the tent of Shem.”
There is one talmudic passage (BT Baba Kama 82b) that seemingly prohibits the study of Greek wisdom. It cites an internecine battle between two brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, descendants of the Hasmonean dynasty (the instigators of the Judean victory over the Jewish Hellenists and the Greek-Syrians at Hanukka).
An elderly man knowledgeable in Greek wisdom urged Aristobulus (whose army was outside of the walls of Jerusalem) to hoist a pig instead of a bullock over the ramparts, thus preventing and even desecrating the daily Temple sacrifice which continued to be offered by Hyrcanus from within Jerusalem.
The actions of this devotee of Greek wisdom who wished to destroy our Hebrew civilization led to a devastating earthquake in the Land of Israel. “From that day onwards,” ruled the Sages, “cursed be the individual who raises pigs and cursed be the father who teaches his child Greek wisdom.”
The prohibition seems to be absolute.
Our legal codes forbid us from raising pigs. But the story is strangely different as far as Greek wisdom is concerned. The Talmud praises the Greek language and deems “Greek wisdom” a skill necessary for international political discourse. In fact, a parallel account at the end of Tractate Sota defines “Greek wisdom” in the context of the prohibition as a “special language of nuance and riddle” used for espionage. This is how Maimonides understood the talmudic decree, adding that “Greek wisdom” has since disappeared from use and hence the prohibition no longer has practical application.
How can we understand this refusal to ban Greek wisdom? It is particularly strange since the Books of the Maccabees demonstrate that the battles commemorated by Hanukka were waged by religious Hasmoneans who rebelled against the elite ruling priesthood, which had been captivated by the “modern” Hellenistic culture and its philosophy, aesthetics and hedonism.
I believe it is because Judaism always valued wisdom – philosophy and science – and appreciated art and music. Witness the Books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, which are even part of our sacred canon. The artist-architect of the desert sanctuary, Bezalel, has a name that means “in the shadow of God”; music abounded in the Holy Temple; King Solomon was highly praised for his worldly wisdom.
The Talmud praises science, maintaining that those who are capable of studying it and do not do so “are making themselves blind to God’s handiwork” (BT Shabbat 75a). Maimonides places philosophy and science under the rubric of Gemara, insisting that these disciplines must be a necessary part of the curriculum in an academy of talmudic studies, as part of the commandment to strive to know God.
The Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ben Adrat, Spain, d. 1310) wrote three responsa in which he banned the study of philosophy, but only for those under the age of 25; Rabbi Moshe Isserles and the Vilna Gaon both allow the study of science and philosophy. Although the Vilna Gaon is cited as saying that the “accursed philosophy turned Maimonides astray,” one of the Vilna Gaon’s best students, Rabbi Menashe from Ilia, wrote that, “these words never emanated from the Gaon’s pen nor from his sacred mouth.”
Indeed, the Vilna Gaon is quoted by Rabbi Baruch Shik of Shklov: “To the extent that a person lacks knowledge of wisdom, he will also lack one hundred measures of the wisdom of Torah, since Torah and wisdom are bound up together.”
As a result of the importance that our tradition gave to the wisdom of philosophy and science, it would have been inconceivable for the Sages to ban Greek wisdom.
Hence, an alternate interpretation of the verse would serve as an introduction to this commentary: “The Lord shall broaden and beautify Japheth [Greece], and he [Japheth] shall dwell in the tents of Shem.”
“The beauty of Japheth must adorn the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27, Genesis Raba, ad loc). Torah must be wed to university study.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.