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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. The 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 Procrustean 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.
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Discussion (150)
October 3, 2014
About truth and narrative.
Dearest Rabbi HaYitom ben Yisrael, indeed there are things that are very wrong and we agree they should be stopped or not allowed to continue... History is full of such wrong doing, to each other. Not only actions, but words and premonitions like telling others what they should do or not do! There's no way we can undo the past. However, we may choose to read and tell it in different ways. We can make new stories about how or why things happened. We may learn to ask for forgiveness and to forgive. This means allowing imperfection to work. I don't see how revenge can heal pain. It may bring satisfaction, but no peace. If we truly desire to be healed we must follow the path of reconciliation, not retribution. This I believe, trust and work for sincerely.
Panayiotis Vyras
Athens, Greece.
October 2, 2014
Your Truth! - really?
Dear Panayiotis Vyras - Avraham was alive before and during the birth of "religious cultural in the Indian sub-continent" in fact the Torah states that he sent "gifts to the East".... Yet, Please explain to me how your "being peaceful" and "allowing your brother's sacrifice" comment will fair when ISIS moves into your neighborhood. There are rights and wrongs that apply to all humanity. Furthermore, it was the Greeks who attempted to extinguish Jewish cultural because it was different. It was not the Jews who attempted to conquer Greece, the Hanukah story is about Jews repelling a foreign invader, i.e. The Greeks and Assyrian-Greeks. Thank you.
Rabbi HaYitom ben Yisrael
September 23, 2014
I do not understand why you took so much pain to discredit the Greek?
Below is from a Greek thought; your article is just facepalming.

.."the good may be said to be not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, and yet the good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power."
September 21, 2014
art and design
If art history is the original history of mankind, so why is it obfuscated in favor of religious ideas which are just hypothesis and not the reality. Artists from caves in france and other places created the 1st true human relics and renaissance. Without artists there would be no plumbing or medicine or modern architecture and cities which we enjoy today. These great strides in civilization came from ancient times in greece and italy. Everyone knows intrinsically that killing and stealing is bad. But not everyone knows the intrinsic merits of culture and art and design which have one can argue the honesty and visually concrete merits for society and the world to thrive, which have nothing to do with being chosen or what ever ideas I find childish and silly and seem to indoctrinate in a negative way.
August 7, 2014
Your truth!
Dear Rabbi HaYitom ben Yisrael, your comment is out of place and time. Many thousand years before Plato or Solomon the sacred vedic scriptures of India had described in great detail that void (emptiness) out of which all things (suchness) emerge! It's therefore neither your truth nor mine, or theirs for that matter... There's no such thing as superiority of mind in the Greek heritage. But there is the superiority of tribe, or the illusion thereof, in the Jewish tradition: Elected folk! And that's evident in your very remarks below, which can be summarized like this: "You are right and we are wrong"... the very basis of all conflicts, since Abel and Kain! Whether you like it or not the only hope for peace is to keep calm and take it easy, allow your brothers to sacrifice as best as they can and enjoy their smoke which is as important as yours even though its colour may not fit your expectations of how a fire should burn...
Panayiotis Vyras
August 6, 2014
Doubt and Truth
Can doubt exist without truth? Think about it... for those making statements about Plato - well, I'm sorry to burst the Greco "superiority of mind" concept, however 1000+/- years before Plato, we (Jews) had people like Sholomo HaMelech (King Solomon - who was credited as the wisest person in history), and he stated in many different ways concepts he learned from G_d and Torah, like: "Yesh m'ayin" ("something from nothing"). Just so happens that it has only taken the rest of the world about 4000+ years, or so, to figure out that "Something from Nothing" is actual. The idea of 'yesh m'ayin' was proven correct at CERN in Switzerland just a year or two ago. Look it up, there is even a PBS program on Netflix about it. So let's start this conversation again by basically acknowledging that 1000 years before the Greeks even had a civilization the Jews were in many ways aware of and/or explaining basics concepts of Existence & Non-Existence, like physics through spirituality.
Rabbi HaYitom ben Yisrael
August 1, 2014
Greeks= soul and mind [nous]. 'The men of eyes.' Ontological. Spirituality of Space.

Jews= heart and spirit [passion]. 'The heart is deep.' Existential. Spirituality of TIME.
Tikkun olam.
Jamie Moran
London, UK
August 1, 2014
About nonsense
Dear Anonymous in New York, there's not just a dichotomy between matter and non-matter for you... it would seem that you are saying: Something which is no matter can't really exist! Very primitive thinking, indeed. Think about trust. Can you touch it? Yet, it may shape our existence and living. Similarly "God" is an abstraction which pre-dates all matter. And that's perfect sense to me, a very ethical one for that matter! We may call it: creativity, purpose, whatever you wish... it's the idea of fine energy (cause) being there before any tangible something (effect) is created. It's as simple as that.
Panayiotis Vyras
July 30, 2014
Nonsense, no matter how eloquently expressed, still remains nonsense.
The Jewish god, supposedly, has nothing to do with matter but created it.
He was, or is, all powerful, saturates everything with his presence, has no needs.If any of these attributes is missing he is simply no god.
So why did he do it? I mean the Big Bang, the existence? Did he need it because he was lonely? Because he needed adulation and worship?
Everything about this creature is petty, and jealous! Commits the worst crimes but there is always a justification for it.
The Jewish Genesis begins with that nonsense and ends with the worst, namely Christianity!
The Hellenic Genesis, at least, begins with fact that matter always existed and she gives birth to gods and demons. That is ethical. The disassociation of anything, without any realistic proof, from matter, is unethical no matter how much the mystics want prove it as " divine "!
Man and Woman are the measure of all things!
New York
December 7, 2013
The contrast between Jew and Greek is complicated.
One thing is clear= it was the Latins who 'limited' Greek Vision to mere Intellect. The word 'theoria' meant a mystical vision of ultimates, a witness to or a spectator at the disclosure of ultimates. This is subtle, but there is a light that always shines for the Greeks on 'higher matters'; whereas there is a numinous, and existential, and inter-personal, dark into which the Jew must step. Kierkegaard makes this point about the story of Abraham; it is evident in the Book of Job. Faith is trust in what you cannot see, and that includes not just the apophatic divinity, but maybe even more a leap of faith, the outcomes in history and the world promised to humanity -- if we risk ourselves in righteous and redemptive deeds. Far-seeing eyes, which can be visionary-mystical, or symbolic, and even rational, typify Hellenism, but there is a leap into the dark, a trust in the unknown, from the heart via action, for Jews.
jamie moran
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