Illustration by Denis Shifrin
In Memory of the late Yaakov Yehudah Frimer
As most of us are aware, paralleling the battle of the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire, there was a more fundamental struggle between Judaism and Greek culture. In a lecture given in 1974 (http://tinyurl.com/2atf3a), Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein attempts to pinpoint the fundamental reason for the rabbis’ struggle with Greek culture.
Some have suggested that it was a battle over the unity of G-d; a battle between monotheism and polytheism. However, the fact is that many of the Greek philosophers themselves did not take polytheism seriously and believed in one G-d. No doubt, the eradication of idolatry was a fundamental element in the specific effort of the Maccabees, but polytheism was not pivotal to Greek culture.
Others suggest that the argument focused upon aesthetics. For the Greeks, nature was perfect and beautiful; hence, the Greeks viewed circumcision as equivalent to maiming. Judaism rejected the Greek notion of the supremacy of beauty and aesthetics; it embraced the beauty of holiness rather than the holiness of beauty. But this, too, does not seem to be the primary focus of the dispute between Judaism and Hellenism.
Still others propose that the dispute was over the role of the intellect. It is said that the Greeks favored the cold mind over warm emotion and depth of the heart. However, even among the Greeks, there existed non-rationalistic approaches. A different view of the argument pits intellect against will. Greeks emphasized thought and understanding; Judaism focuses on will and action, on the mitzvah.
While all of these points are true, they are only a small part of a larger picture. There are, maintains Rabbi Aharon, two fundamental features of Greek culture to which the rabbis were vehemently opposed:
1. The first pillar of Greek culture is the belief that existence in its totality is comprehensible and conquerable. The universe follows certain rules and contains no mystery; it reflects no greater power. They believed that the cosmos embodied order, and order allows understanding. Man can understand and ultimately control all of creation and existence. This meant that there was nothing in the universe beyond human comprehension.
2. The second pillar of Greek culture was the centrality of Man in the universe. The Greeks studied nature from an anthropocentric viewpoint; nature was important only as it related to Man.
These two aspects of Greek culture present Man as the ruler over and situated at the center of nature and the cosmos.
Interestingly, this idea – that Man should control the universe – is also found within Judaism. In Genesis 1:28 we read: “And the Lord blessed them saying: Be fruitful and multiply; fill the land and conquer it; dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and every beast that walks the land.” The Talmud even chastises one who neglects the study of astronomy. (Shabbat 75a). So why did our forefathers fight to resist Greek culture? The answer is that the Greek viewpoint presents only half the picture as if it were complete, and here lies the root of the problem.
Judaism, like Greek culture, places Man at the center of creation as one who dominates the world. However, for Judaism both Man and his world are null and void in the presence of God. Religious Man experiences humility and insignificance in front of creation, both in the universe's grandeur and in its complex detail. The Torah wants Man to work on nature and improve it, to conquer the earth and understand it – but at the same time to perceive its amazing diversity and complexity. The world despite all Man’s efforts remains hidden, mysterious and wondrous – thus maintaining Man's lowliness and humility.
The dominion of Man and his mastery over nature can be part of worship of the Creator. But for the Greeks, Man's greatness became so central that it is a religion in itself. The problem with Greece was not the belief in multiple deities, but rather the deification of Man. Judaism demands, however, that we be theocentric – that we believe that the center of all reality is the Creator, and we are here to serve Him. It is from Hashem that we draw our life, our strength and our meaning.
It is perhaps for this reason that the rabbis emphasized the miracle of the cruse of oil as the central theme of Chanukah. It emphasizes that which cannot be quantified, that which is mysterious and wondrous. The very possibility of a miracle which violates the laws of nature is symbolic of our rejection of some very basic elements of Greek culture which we have delineated above.
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Frimer is the Ethel and David Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University. Email: Frimea@mail.biu.ac.il