Athens vs Jerusalem

A significant distinction between the Greek and Hebrew cultures reverberates to this day.

A guard walks past statues of wounded Amazones, made between 400 and 350 BCE, at the National Archeological Museum in Athens (photo credit: REUTERS)
A guard walks past statues of wounded Amazones, made between 400 and 350 BCE, at the National Archeological Museum in Athens
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Contemporary Western culture is fundamentally the product of two great ancient civilizations: Greco-Roman and Hebrew (or Judeo-Christian, as it is generally described).
More than two millennia ago (in 165 BCE), the Hasmonean-Judeans won a military victory against the Syrian Hellenists, granting Judea the opportunity to reclaim and cleanse our Second Holy Temple and develop the Second Commonwealth largely independent of the heirs of Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic conquest of the “fertile crescent.”
Much has been written about the clash of ideology separating Jerusalem from Athens. Nineteenth-century German poet-philosopher Heinrich Heine suggested that for the Greeks beauty was truth whereas for the Hebrews truth was beauty, and late-20th-century philosopher William Barrett maintained that while the Greeks idealized philosophic speculation and theoretical meditation, the Hebrews emphasized moral and ethical conduct in daily human behavior as being the highest good.
Allow me to suggest a more significant distinction between the Greek and Hebrew cultures, one which reverberates to this very day. The answer to the Greek Riddle of the Sphinx “Who walks on four in the morning, on two in the afternoon and on three in the evening?” is Man, who crawls about as a baby, stands upright as an adult and has need of a cane in old age. C.M. Bowra, the great interpreter of the wisdom of Hellas, suggests that indeed Man is the answer, not only to the Riddle of the Sphinx but to every question worth asking. Pythagoras taught that “Man is the measure of all things”; for the famed sculptor Praxiteles, the human form was the most perfect of all forms (and therefore for the ancient Greeks circumcision was a heinous crime because it maimed the perfect human body); and the chorus of Sophocles’s Antigone iterates and reiterates, “Many are the awesome-awful (Hebrew nora, nora’ot) phenomena, but none more awesome-awful than man.”
Hence the gods on Mount Olympus were formed in the image of man, endowed with human and mostly physical characteristics: Zeus was the most powerful, unpitying and terrible; Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty and pleasure; Hermes was the god of speed. The gods were created in the image of humans, warring and jealous human-like beings, idealizing their most physical and even animalistic traits.
JUDAISM IS the very antithesis of this. Human beings are created in the image of God, duty bound to walk in God’s ways and to emulate His Divine characteristics of love, compassion, patience, loving-kindness and truth. “Just as the Holy One Blessed be He is called compassionate, so must you be compassionate, just as He grants His grace freely, so must you grant grace freely....”
(Maimonides, Book of Commandments, Positive Command 8). These characteristics are not physical but rather spiritual; characteristics of the soul.
I would submit that from the pre-Sophists of the Hellenistic era until the post-Modernists of today, there are only two fundamental ideologies of the human being: Is he a complex animal, the most fit species to survive because he was the most powerful (sometimes as a result of superior intelligence leading to knockout weaponry) and to the victor belong the spoils, or is he rather a child of the Divine created in the Divine Image, inalienably free, inviolate and inviolable and Right will eventually triumph over Might, in a perfect world under the Kingship of the Divine? Greek-Sparta-Rome taught the former, touting war as the ideal because war tests the mettle of the man, separates the strong from the weak, the brave from the cowardly; “arma virumque cano,” “of arms and virility do I sing,” calls out the Aeneid. And this view spawned Babylon, Persia, Rome, Aryan-Nazism, Stalinist (and Putinist) Communism and extremist Islam – father of ISIS.
Abraham taught the latter, “commanding his children and his household after him to observe the way of the Lord, to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice, chosen by God to become a great nation to bring blessing to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:2, 3, 18:18-19).
Abraham’s seed, and all of those who accept the teaching of the God whom Abraham, the father of a multitude of nations, discovered, are to be God’s witnesses, priest-teachers to all of humanity, promulgating a world of peace and human redemption, a world in which the strong will not take it as their right to destroy and inherit the weak but will rather take responsibility for the weak and teach them how to become strong.
HENCE, FROM time immemorial great wars have been fought between those who believe in power and those who believe in morality. Nietzsche even taught that those who believe in morality place limits upon, and severely threaten, those who believe in power, which may well explain the anti-Semitism suffered by Jews throughout human history.
It is not correct to link together the three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – as being monotheistic, and thus against the rule of Power.
That is true of Judaism, which believes that God created humankind in His Image, and God created everyone equally free to believe in whatever he may wish to believe as long as it does not imply bringing undue suffering to any innocent human being. That is true of contemporary Christianity, post-Nostra Aetate, but it is not true of jihadist Islam, preaching a holy war of domination and subjugation and even extinction of any people who do not believe in Islam’s right to dominate.
Abraham did not merely discover monotheism; he discovered ethical monotheism, a God demanding compassionate righteousness and moral justice.
Anyone who believes in one deity, who urges terrorist jihad, is a mono-satanist, not a mono-theist, having transformed our loving God into a hating Satan.
Textbooks, propaganda machinery and armaments in the hands of these mono-satanists must be extirpated if the free world is to survive.
And so the truest distinction between Judaism and Hellenism lies in the question as to who is really the measure of all things, the ultimate decisor of human conflict: powerful man or ethical God? From this perspective we may also gain deeper understanding of the ideological argument between Joseph and his brothers, an enmity born not only from jealousy and sibling rivalry.
You will remember the grand dream of our forefather Jacob, truly the national vision of Israel, a ladder uniting heaven and earth, spirituality and materialism, with God above the ladder charging Israel’s eternal seed to fill the earth with the blessing of compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Gen. 28:13-15).
HOW DIFFERENT are the dreams of Joseph, newly appointed heir-apparent to the birthright, just having received the tunic of many colors from his father: the sheaves of grain of the brothers all bowing down to the sheaf of Joseph; the sun, moon and 11 stars all bowing down to Joseph! Joseph, not God, is at the center of his dream. No wonder the brothers are ready to banish him from their family and mission.
Subsequently Joseph, as a result of his exile and peregrinations, comes to realize that it is indeed God who is at the helm as final guide and arbiter. When he stands before Pharaoh to interpret his dream, he clearly states, “It has nothing to do with me; it is God who will respond to bring peace to Pharaoh”; and even earlier in his Egyptian experience, Joseph finds the moral strength to resist the seduction of Potiphar’s wife because he could not “sin before God” (Gen. 39:9). It is hardly coincidental that these biblical readings always fall out in the period of Hanukka.
Hanukka sameah
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His latest book, The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.