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Why Couldn't the Jews and Greeks Just Get Along?

Why Couldn't the Jews and Greeks Just Get Along?



It's hard for me to get into Chanukah. As far as I can see, the whole thing was a major disaster. Here we have a meeting of two rich cultures, with so much to share, so much to contribute to the world together, so much synergy that could happen, and instead, BOOM! -- the extremists of both sides hit the battlefield.

I don't get it. The Greeks were universalists. They were open to new ideas from wherever they came. They spread knowledge and understanding throughout the Mediterranean. Here was an opportunity to take Jewish values to the world, to go public. Why couldn't those Maccabee hotheads work out some sort of compromise?

The Short Answer:

Actually, this was the greatest thing that could have happened to the Greek mind: To discover that one thing it could not tolerate -- something like the massage therapist who helps you to find that one trigger point where you can't be touched.

For the Jew, as well, this was a defining experience. The red lines became clear, and with those guidelines, the essential Torah was made able to survive to this day.

The Long Answer:

You're right about one thing: The whole Chanukah story was completely out of character for Ancient Greece. I don't believe there was any other culture they ever oppressed or forbade. Every new culture had its set of gods and rituals, and that was just great. "Hey, you got gods? We got gods, too! Here, let's trade god cards! How 'bout mix and match? You got rituals? You got belief-systems? We're into all that stuff! We'll even help you make big, pretty statues!" Greeks were great syncretists -- meaning, they could jerry together every culture of the known world and make one big tzimmes out of all of it.

So what on earth did they have against the Jews?

Sure, there were political power-plays going on that were the ostensible reasons for the conflict. But it's obvious there was something deeper at play. Some subliminal annoyance that brought out the worst in the Greek and pushed the Maccabees to revolt. Apparently, there was something about the Jewish mind that didn't mix and match.

Now look at it from the Jewish side: Jews have also borrowed from every culture they've come in contact with. Whatever your grandmother tells you, Abraham did not smear his gefilte fish with chrane. One culture we borrowed more from than perhaps any other was that of Ancient Greece. The Talmud tells us that the only language the Torah could be translated into elegantly is Greek. They said it was a beautiful language. They say that of all peoples, the Greeks had ideas closest to ours. They praised many of the Greek philosophers. Maimonides wrote that Aristotle was half a prophet. The Seder Hadorot, a kind of classic Jewish history book, claims that Aristotle was really Jewish!

So what is going on here? Why such a violent clash? Why were the Jews unable to work out some sort of compromise with a Hellenist ruler?

We need to know because in a very real way, Chanukah lives on. Our society today is a bizarre grafting of these two cultures, the Hellenist and the Jewish. If this conflict existed back then, the question is, has there been some resolution over time? Or are we still fighting Greek elephants? Simply put: Is our society schizoid?

Head-To-Head -- and Beyond

So here's how the conversation goes. Which conversation? The conversation that's been going on ever since the Greek mind and the Jewish mind met one another, almost two and a half millennia ago. Where does it happen? Mostly, somewhere deep inside Jewish minds:

Greek: So tell us about your gods, Mr. Maccabee.

Jew: Um, that's singular.

Greek: Okay, tell me about your gods.

Jew: No, not you. G‑d. G‑d is singular. Only one god.

Greek: Don't worry, we've got so many I'm sure we can spare a few.

Jew: That's okay, one is enough.

Greek: So, this one G‑d, what does He look like? We'd love to make some nice statues for you. You poor, uncultured people, you have no statues!

Jew: That's because He doesn't have looks.

Greek: No looks? Ugly? That's cool! A god of ugliness! Don't worry, we can make ugly statues, too.

Jew: No, no. He has no looks at all. You can't see Him.

Greek: An invisible G‑d? Well, maybe we can do that in glass. But you have to give us some description.

Jew: Nope. Sorry. No description.

Greek: You mean nobody ever saw Him? How can you worship something if you don't know what it looks like? I mean, how do you know He exists in the first place?

Jew: It's not that we don't know what He looks like. He doesn't have any looks. He has no image.

Greek: Well, I'm sorry then. If He has no image, we can't make a statue.

Jew: That's fine with us.

Greek: But we'd like to write books about Him. So just give us some definition and we'll work around it.

Jew: Oh, our G‑d can't be defined.

Greek: Come, now. Everything has to have a definition. Or else it's not a thing.

J: But G‑d is not a thing. He creates things. But He isn't a thing.

G: Oh! So He is the Cosmic Mind Who conceives and shapes all forms from the primal essence-matter.

J: No, He doesn't just form them, He creates them. Out of nothing.

G: Now you're getting silly. You can't make something out of nothing. You need stuff to make it out of.

J: But there wasn't any stuff when things began.

G: There was always stuff. How else could the Cosmic Mind make anything?

J: Out of nothing!

G: Look, you Jews don't really think straight. But that's okay. We've conquered all sorts of primitive cultures. You'll learn, too. So, you worship the Cosmic Mind -- you'll get along just great with Aristotle and…

J: No, He's not just the Cosmic Mind.

G: Well, nothing's higher than the Cosmic Mind.

J: Because that's not who He is. I mean, even if He didn't make a world, He would still be G‑d. So you can't say, "that's who He is -- the One that makes a world." There doesn't have to be a world for Him to exist.

G: Of course there has to be a world. Otherwise, why is there a world if there doesn't have to be one? The world makes sense. The Cosmic Mind makes sense. That's what it's all about. Reason. The highest and most perfect of all things. We Greeks will teach you all about that. So, now tell me about your rituals. We Greeks really dig rituals. Any that have to do with wine? Parties?

J: Sure, we make kiddush on Friday night to commemorate the Creation of the world from nothing.

G: Well, you can give up that one now, since I've just shown you that creation of the world from nothing makes no sense whatsoever.

J: We don't eat milk with meat.

G: Why not?

J: G‑d says so.

G: For what reason?

J: Reason? He needs a reason? For the same reason He created heaven and earth!

G: Which is?

J: He just wanted to.

G: That's not a reason!

J: Sure it is. He decided He would like a world where there would be milk and meat and He would tell people, "Don't eat that milk and meat together!" and they would listen.

G: That makes no sense. That's not a reason!

J: Reason is just another of His creations.

G: Reason is the ultimate! There is nothing higher than Reason!

J: Okay then, explain to me why the world is the way it is. Why does one plus one equal two? Why does the square of the length of the hypotenuse equal the sum of the squares of the lengths of the other two sides? Why do parallel lines never meet?

G: Because those are the rules of geometry!

J: So why does the Cosmic Mind, as you call Him, have to follow your rules of geometry?

G: They're not our rules! They are the self-evident truths of nature!

J: Why are these the truths and not something else?

G: You stubborn Jew! Don't you see that this is the most elegant, rational way things could be?

J: I'll bet you He could break them. I'll bet our G‑d could make a world where parallel lines meet. He could break any of the laws of nature.

G: You can't break laws of nature! They're not like laws of the state or like your silly laws about cheeseburgers. They are truths. They are perfect. They are the ground of reality. They are because they have to be.

J: Nothing has to be. Nothing but the Source of Being. But He could be any way He wants.

G: Geometry has to be. Cause and effect has to be. Logic has to be. If A = B then B = A. That is an absolute Truth. It must be.

J: Why?

G: Why?! Because if they don't have to be, then I and you and this whole world have no real substance! And that cannot be!

J: That's just what I was trying to tell you. This world has no real substance. They only truth is…

G: Don't say it, Mr. Maccabee! You people are downright dangerous.

And that is why the Greeks did not forbid Jewish practice altogether. What they (initially) forbade were those practices that they saw as irrational. Those practices that Jews do simply because they believe they have a relationship with a Being who is higher than reason. That, they could not tolerate.

Of course, as you know, eventually some bright boys came up with geometries where parallel lines meet; cause and effect got bumped out of quantum physics; the world was discovered to have had a beginning; and even now it still is really nothing because the sum of all radiant energy minus all of the universe's mass equals zero. Most of us today have accepted that there are things that are the way they are not for any reason, but just because that's the way they are. Nothing has to be the way it is. Why do masses attract? Why is the grass green? Why is there anything at all? There doesn't have to be a reason for everything, because reason is not the foundation of reality. So what's so absurd about connecting to the Foundation of Reality through mitzvot that are beyond reason?

Mind Under Matter

Nevertheless, the battle continues. You see, as mentioned above, the Greek mind, aside from worshipping human intellect, is also a great syncretist. That means it can hammer together the most incongruous ideologies without blinking an eyelid. You've heard of Rice-Christians? Peyote-Catholics? The Greek mind could do any of that, and more.

The two characteristics go hand in hand: When there's nothing higher than intellect, intellect has no guiding light. Everything, even the stupidest thing -- as long as it doesn't deny intellect -- can be tolerated. Aristotle knew that the pantheon of Athenian gods was nonsense. But what's wrong with the common people, who cannot understand any better, having their way?

You can easily see that a knowledge of an absolute Divine Will beyond reason has become a necessity for human survival. Without the supposition of a Divine Will, whatever you wish to make sense can make sense. If your system of logic cannot support an idea, just change the postulates and rethink the data. Anything can be made to make sense when you determine the assumptions. Every society has had its philosophers and philosophers have justified everything imaginable -- from coliseum killing games to gas chambers.

Strangely, this may have worked to humanity's advantage in one regard: The Greek mind applied itself to figuring out the material world. When your belief system begins with Divine revelation you don't necessarily apply yourself to mundane matters of how things work. So technological progress became chiefly the domain of the Greek mind throughout history.

But it also has some nefarious consequences. Because when you marry intellect and materialism (a good description of Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany), you've entered a bottomless pit of quicksand.

Which brings us to a fascinating point. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that in Hebrew, the name for ancient Greece, Yavan, has another meaning: quicksand (as in Psalms 40:3 and Talmud, Eruvin 19a). Water mixes with sand, dirt and clay. You step in it and you can't get out. The more you try to climb up, the further down you go.

Take a look at the letters that spell Yavan in Hebrew: יון . It starts with a small point of a yud -- representing wisdom. That stretches down to become a vav. And the vav stretches even further down, below the line, to become a long nun. It's all a description of the process of intellect sinking into the material world and, with nothing to hold it in place, sinking further and further.

A Donkey and an Ox

Today, we have those syncretists who wish to marry materialism with Torah. And nothing is less congruous than that.

Materialism is the ultimate of Greece stuck in the mud. It is the idea that all that exists is that which can be observed, described and explained. Evolutionism, for example, is a materialistic explanation of existence. When people became disillusioned with the church and with faith, they needed an explanation of existence that relied on Chance and Necessity alone, without recourse to G‑d. Darwinism and current cosmologies provide just that. So do the standard interpretations of history we are taught today.

Torah is an understanding that behind the world lies a Divine Will, unhampered by the limitations of nature or human logic -- because it is the source of all this. Why are there laws of nature? Because G‑d generally chooses to work in consistent ways. Why did history unfold the way it did? Because that is all in G‑d's plan.

When someone tries to provide a materialistic explanation for Torah and mitzvot, they are creating a Promethean bed, killing all sense of Torah in the process. So too, attempting to resolve conflicts between evolutionary doctrines and Torah makes less sense than marrying a donkey to an ox.

Yes, we try to understand as much as we can. The Torah commands us to think deeply, to immerse our intellects in study and comprehension. Whatever we can fit into intellect, we must strive to do so. Whatever explanation we can give, we must give it. But always with the sense that with every new grain of understanding, we have expanded the seashore of the Infinite Unknowable.

We can have a thousand reasons for not mixing meat and milk, but when it comes down to it, we do it because that is our personal connection with the Divine Will, the Life of All Things. And that is the victory of Chanukah.

For a different perspective on the same topic, please read Were the Maccabees Barbarians?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous May 5, 2016

Was it not Plato that said that only the artist can achieve perfection. Is not art history the oldest human history. hence God made man to create beautiful art and design, this is the best of mankind, everything else is conjecture. Just imagine god floating around out there somewhere, what would god take interest in? I bet he or she would love nature like anyone, but I do not think God would take pleasure in modern cities although beautiful cities I am sure would please God. I don't think God would take particular interest in computers or books as much as he / she would be =leased with beautiful landscape architecture and public art that make for a beautiful and thoughtful atmosphere. I am not sure how this fits into the conversation but it seems like it should. Reply

Anonymous May 3, 2016

It's funny. In reality philosophy is assuming to grasp a rational foothold of the world in a way that can be used constructively.
You argue that philosophizing about the world materialistically create a negative quick-sand effect however that seems to be what you are doing.
You are claiming that nothing something that can't be described or defined can exist yet you need to use materialism to define that it can't be defined there for you have defined it. It is everything we can't see hear or touch, then why bother?
Obviously this begs for a circular argument since you cannot define what you claim exists without any proof. It reminds me of the great JEWISH genious Albert Einstein who said "there are two things that are infinite, the universe and human stupidity and i'm not so sure about the universe."
If you cannot define your god, drop him cause he doesn't exist, if you can't stop to define him then he is god. And from your post, the greek philosophy seem to be in much higher relation to god than it's counterpart in this text.
If your whole argument is based around the fact that you do not need to have a better argument because your god can't be defined anyway, i mean, convenient i guess. Does it help the world? "I don't know but i am going to go and pray to the dark for a bit now" Reply

charlie December 16, 2015

I am Greek, and I always curious about this subject ,thanks it was very informative . I hope Greece and Israel( I have met many nice people from Israel by the way) can have a long lasting friendship one day . Reply

Panayiotis Vyras Greece January 6, 2015

Let's try to be exact in what we mean when using specific words in conversation. And let's keep in mind that definitions change, as do needs or people! Same means that certain features are constantly similar in separate people through different times, i.e: A sad event causes sorrow and makes everyone (everywhere and at all times) feel badly. The expected outcome of sadness is tears, not laughter. Humans are truly very much the same in that, if they are healthy. And there's no such thing as greek or jewish sadness, just sorrow as opposed to joy. There are cases of course when this feature is disturbed (schizophrenia) and they too appear in the same way, always. Same argument is valid regarding anger, fear, desire and every human feeling or thought for that matter. If we grasp this and agree to such basic truth there's no room for fighting about our differences which are indeed great and important. Accepting the validity of human nature for every person makes us inevitably tolerant. Reply

Rabbi HaYitom ben Yisrael USA/Israel December 16, 2014

Yes, Reb Tzvi. A very modern story, tolerance is supposed to be based upon understanding/comprehension & dignity/respect, not on homogenization. It is similar to the concept of a conversion, most people think it is about accepting beliefs and becoming part of "this or that ideology about life and G_d" yet in reality a true (Jewish) conversion is about rejecting everything else and becoming part of the "essential difference" in the world. People (many Jews) seem to think xmas and Hanukah have common ground - they do Not! Likewise all of the Jewish holy days, whether minor or major, (originally) had nothing to do with the culture in and around Eretz Yisrael - whether it was during the time of Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, the Tribal period, the first or second Temple, etc... the various Exiles that we have been through and returned from is the main evidence that We - Jews - are different, we're suppose to be, & the rest of the world tends (at various times) to hates us because of it. Ad matai Reply

Anonymous Seattle December 16, 2014

Since when did tolerance come to mean "we're all the same?" Not to me, nor to many others I have heard use the term in interfaith contexts. Personally, I see tolerance as basic respect to those who show equal respect to others -- at least in a Noachide context. Live and let live. Basic Hillel, don't do to others what you would not have them do to you.
A further note: Were the armies arrayed against the Maccabees all or even mostly Hellenized Jews? No, they were Helenized Syrians. True the conflict between Hellenized and non-Hellenized Jews went beyond rabbinic machlokes/argument for the same of heaven. Still, overstating the case relegates our struggle for freedom from persecution into conquest by "defenders of the faith" over "infidels in our midst." Not that I believe Rabbis Freeman and Sacks seek holy war. I do believe Chanukah is central to our mission as an or lagoyim/light unto the nations -- and promoting tolerance sheds a lot more light than fighting among ourselves. Reply

Panayiotis Vyras Greece December 16, 2014

Dear Rabi,
Tolerance meant and means: I accept you! To invent any other meaning is indeed quite creative but far from reality. May I suggest that acceptance can and does bring peace (to the self or in relations) when the need to be different recedes in view of the awesome similarities between humans, individually and collectively. There's no point in stressing the issue of differences, I believe. They are inevitable as we are separate units (persons) within other units (societies) as a matter of fact. The other fact is that we do inevitably share many similar features as well. The choice, which way to look, is always open! The Greeks then and some other societies now seem to have opted for looking at what makes us (possibly) same... not equal, as there's no such thing. If Jews (or every society which rejoices in being different, for that matter) find peace in choosing to look at another way let it be so. My feeling is that this will not bring any joy, to them or anyone else... Reply

Tzvi Freeman December 16, 2014

Jonathan Sacks puts it well in the second chapter of his modern classic, "The Dignity of Difference." Hellenism was very similar to McDonaldism—the great equalizer. "Tolerance" meant, "we're all the same." That's what Alexander wanted to achieve, and that's what many Jews, unfortunately, fell for.

Yes, the real conflict was between Hellenized and non-Hellenized Jew. What was at stake was more than Jewish survival. It is really the story of diversity of human culture.

Very much a modern story. Reply

Rabbi HaYitom ben Yisrael USA/Israel December 14, 2014

B'vakhashah. ...bracha b'hatzlacha. Chag urim sameach (joy on the festival of light!) Hanukah Sameach! Reply

Barbara Kropp Cottage Grove, MN December 14, 2014

RE: milk & meat-I was told that milk represented 'life' (sustenance for baby mammals), & meat necessitated killing or death. G_d forbade combining the 2-life& death in this way , that is in nourishment for the body. This explanation resonated with me personally, but I love the statement "We can have a thousand reasons for not mixing meat and milk, but when it comes down to it, we do it because that is our personal connection with the Divine Will, the Life of All Things". So true & so beautiful! Reply

Ed Lexington, MA December 12, 2014

Clever article, but faith vs. rationality was not the issue between Greeks and Jews. In fact, many Jews begun to accept Greek culture then, and that's what frightened the zealot Jews. They realized, that they urgently need to create "us vs. them" facts on the ground, or most of us will become them - assimilate into their "progressive" culture. This worry exists till this day especially in the old galut. And in Eretz Israel, "us vs. them" is often what binds secular and religious Jews together in their struggle for the land and livelihood. If we are truly chosen people, we need to acknowledge the reality - the spiritual chasm that exists between secular and religious Jewish world. Sending Chabad shluchim to bridge that gap may be helpful but its not the only answer. The fundamental answer lies in bridging faith and reason like bridging the left and right sides of the brain for a holy or wholesome mind. Suggesting that the two are irreconcilable is a mistake. Reply

IsaacZ ny, ny via December 11, 2014

Historically, there were wealthy factions and Jews that allied with the Greeks. The Maccabees were not unlike the Zealots that forced rebellions against the Romans, and generally younger and poorer. Chanukah is a miracle but whether the 8 nights is valid or mythical is a matter of faith. Reply

Peninah December 11, 2014

Thank you. The absurdity of life nowadays is stifling. We just make do with what we've got. Reply

Anonymous Seattke December 10, 2014

It wasn't the Greeks, it was the Hellenized Syrians known as Seleucids who banned Jewish practices following the breakup of the empire of Alexander the Great. During the same period Jewish communities in Egypt prospered under the more Alexandrian-style Ptolemies, who achieved ascendancy in that part of the old empire. For the life of me I don't understand why the story is told with the Greeks as villains. It was the Seleucids who perverted Greek culture, especially by abandoning the tolerance that Alexander himself instituted in Israel. The fact that they claimed to be acting as Greeks should not distract us from the reality. Reply

Shiphrah Aubert Long Beach, CA December 10, 2014

If the Greeks were really all that, why weren't they the chosen people of G-d to begin with? And where are they now this present day compared to the Jewish people and Israel?

Chanuka to me is about dedicating oneself to the standards and measures that G-d has set regardless on how great a culture (like ancient Greek or even ancient Egypt) has made itself outside the will of G-d. Reply

Rabbi HaYitom ben Yisrael USA/Israel December 9, 2014

The english terms get homogenized. Consider using the terms arrogance, and dignity in regard to the Rambam's comments on Pirke Avot. One should have dignity, yet not arrogance. Our modernity has been so focused upon redefining, and re-making things, even our "self-images" have become distorted from actuality. Example: we attach "greatness" and afford honors and attention to people who don't really do anything - except "make-believe" & yet truly great people are treated as "inferior" because they or what they do is "not marketable" or "trend-worthy"... Consider that only 40-50 yrs ago kids tended to view their future by wanting to be like, or have a career in, and/or otherwise respecting firemen, teachers, rabbis and scholars, clergy-persons, artists, astronauts, even construction-workers, & laborers; Yet now kids want to be on TV, in movies, win at sports, win at making money... Competency is not viewed as a character quality, unless u r "good enough to win" (or "lose") Reply

Chava Levy Guatemala December 9, 2014

Amazing, genius! Thank you Tzvi! Reply

Peninah December 8, 2014

Maimonides explanation. In Pirkei Avot it says, “be exceedingly humble, for the hope/end of man is the worm”. He teaches the principle of the golden mean in relation to man’s character. The exception is humility. It is simply not enough to be humble but one must be exceedingly humble.
But then in his discussion of the red heifer it seems pride is important because it enlarges a persons mind and it purifies the impure and makes impure the pure. Can you please reconcile these ideas for me? How can we be required to be extremely humble (essentially riding oneself of pride) and then in the same breathe require pride to draw us to Hashem? Reply

Peninah December 8, 2014

Hubris, Hubris, Hubris
Pride(inordinate opinion of self) is the most recurrent denominator in almost all wars,carnage and atrocities. Self is the biggest idol in our world and pride an external manifestation of how big one's ideology of self is.
Intellect may have many definitions but all intellect is is a G-d given ability to perceive facts(truth) that are already in place. This is why it is foolish for a man to feel they are superior to another just because they "discovered" a fact that Hashem had already created. Many human beings worship intellect which is a direct extension of self.
The Greeks's ego was hurt when they found people whose intellect was way beyond theirs. For once someone was challenging their syncretism because Hashem is the Ultimate,the Absolute and the Author of everything that exists(even existence).How amazing is G-d!
The gift of intellect is supposed to be used to bring glory to Hashem and not to man.
The idea of pride in english is ambivalent but so is Reply

Myra Matlin Oxnard,CA via December 8, 2014

this opened my mind unbelievably.Shalom!
Zol Zai Gezent (bad english but you get it,right?) Reply

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