Author Archives: Efraim Palvanov

Death of Hellenism, Then and Now

As we prepare for the start of Chanukah this Sunday evening, it is a fitting time to once more explore the relationship between Judaism and Hellenism, between ancient Israel and ancient Greece. This will be our third such installment: In the first one, we explored how Hellenism influenced Judaism, while in the second we took an opposite look at how much Judaism influenced Hellenism. To break the tie, we will now analyze why it is that ancient Greece ultimately collapsed while Israel flourished and, by extension, why the spirit of Hellenism that has been reignited today is doomed to fail while Judaism will continue to thrive.

When we journey back over two thousand years ago, we find that Hellenism spread rapidly across the Old World, particularly after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Ancient Greece saw itself as the pinnacle of civilization and humanity. Indeed, ancient Greece made huge strides in philosophy, science, art, and literature, as well as military strategy, athletics, and architecture. Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE) is credited with being the “father of medicine”, Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) with being the “father of history”, Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE) as the founder of Western philosophy, Solon (c. 630-560 BCE) as the founder of democracy, and Archimedes (c. 287-212 BCE) as the “father of mathematics”. Despite this, ancient Greece totally self-destructed shortly after, and Hellenism was extinguished almost as quickly as it spread. What happened?

Historians have spent a great deal of time studying every nuance of ancient Greek life and society. The reasons for its destruction are quite clear, and were well-summarized in David P. Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). The core reason for the extinction of ancient Greece was the breakdown of the family unit. Over time, homosexual relationships became increasingly common and, tragically, pederasty along with it. Meanwhile, the obsession over wealth meant that parents wanted less children so that they wouldn’t compete for resources and inheritance. Infanticide became an accepted practice, and all but the most perfect babies were “exposed” and allowed to die.

The Greek world, c. 200 BCE

With smaller and smaller families concentrating more and more wealth, people became lazy and unproductive as they could afford to outsource labour and rely almost entirely on slaves. With more wealth and more power came more hubris, so godlessness proliferated, too. When you have a population of spoiled citizens, weak and debauched, descending ever-further into immorality and materialism, society is doomed. Greece was soon overrun by its neighbours. For many decades, Rome couldn’t care less about Greece—there was little for them to gain there, and Rome was focused on Carthage in the west. In 150 BCE, Macedonia foolishly provoked Rome and was routed. A few years later, the remaining Greek states (the Achaean League) united against Rome in what was widely-recognized, even then, as suicidal. Rome finished them off without breaking a sweat. Greece went out with a whimper.

(When it comes to the Seleucids, ie. the Syrian-Greeks of Chanukah infamy, they first went to war against Rome in 192 BCE, before the events of Chanukah. This was in a Seleucid attempt to conquer mainland Greece and become the dominant eastern superpower. They failed miserably, and promised Rome never to attempt such a thing again. Rome saw the Seleucids as a useful buffer in the far east and let them continue to exist in the meantime. After being severely weakened by the Maccabees, among other enemies, the Seleucids were formally extinguished by Rome in 63 BCE.)

Thomas Cole’s “Destruction” (1836) from his “The Course of Empire” series which depicted the rise and fall of a civilization. The cause of this fourth stage of destruction, in Cole’s words: “Luxury has weakened and debased.”

The Jewish Antidote

When we look at the Jewish world, we find none of the issues of ancient Greece. While Greece suffered from the collapse of the traditional family unit, Judaism is and always has been primarily about the family. Homosexual relationships are forbidden. Pederasty is obviously criminal, and our Sages went so far as to say a pederast is not only a terrible sinner—to be executed by stoning in ancient times—but “delays the coming of Mashiach” (Niddah 13b). Unlike Hellenism, Judaism has always valued having more children, not less. It is a big mitzvah to reproduce and raise good kids, ensuring that they don’t fight each other over material wealth, but support each other and motivate one another to grow spiritually. Needless to say, infanticide is forbidden.

While ancient Greece became a slave-holding society, ancient Judea had very little of it, as Judaism always frowned upon slavery. This goes all the way back to the Torah, which commands all slaves to be freed after a maximum of six years of service. Our Sages instituted further laws that gave slaves so many rights and privileges that it was said “one who gains a slave gains a master!” Jewish law made slavery completely unpalatable. Instead, the Sages taught the value of honest labour, and the importance of one making their own parnasah. They set the right example themselves: Hillel was a lumberjack while Shammai was in construction. Rabbi Yehoshua was a charcoal maker, Rabbi Akiva was originally a shepherd, while Rav Yochanan was a shoemaker. Even those Sages who were full-time scholars made sure to exert themselves physically, carrying heavy loads on their way to the study hall, and announcing that “great is labour, for it honours its worker.” (Nedarim 49b). The Torah commands us to work six days a week and be productive, then rest on Shabbat. And so, ancient Israel avoided the key issues that plagued ancient Greece.

Today, the Western secular world is essentially a renewed Hellenistic culture. In fact, the Modern Hebrew term for a secular person is hiloni, which is thought to come from “Hellene”! The same issues that plagued ancient Greece plague the West today. First and foremost is the breakdown of the traditional family unit. Together with that is the proliferation and mainstreaming of homosexuality—once a private and personal matter, now glorified and paraded down the streets of every major city (often grotesquely, in a manner that would be just as immoral if it was heterosexual).

Then there’s the rampant abortion (comparable to infanticide), the obsession with wealth and materialism, and the outsourcing of physical labour. While there may not be slavery per se, Westerners today have become used to hiring cheap labour for tasks like cleaning and cooking, while purchasing a never-ending stream of stuff produced in slavery-like conditions in other parts of the world. Instant gratification, mindless entertainment, endless materialism, and sexual immorality have become the cornerstones of modern Western culture. Not surprisingly, Western society has long passed its golden age and, like ancient Greece, is on a rapid path towards self-destruction.

While secular society is headed for annihilation, traditional Judaism will continue to thrive, as it has for thousands of years. In some sense, Judaism is the antidote to Hellenism. It is important to clarify that by “Judaism” what is meant here is actual Torah-based and Torah-observant Judaism. Other iterations masquerading as “Judaism” are nothing more than Hellenism. One mustn’t forget that the foremost enemies for the Maccabees were not actually the foreign Seleucid forces, but rather the Hellenizing Jews living inside Israel itself. It was those so-called Jewish “priests” who agreed to bring a pig as a sacrificial offering, thus instigating a war when the Maccabees rose up to stop them.

Today, we once again have so-called Jewish “priests” who will gladly offer a pig on any altar. They will happily marry anyone on any altar, too, and will proudly support the breakdown of the family unit, the abortion, the sexual immorality, and so on. This is not Judaism and never will be. It is an affront to everything the Torah stands for, and all the leaders of that camp who dare light a menorah are spitting in the face of the Maccabees. (As always, it is a minority of leaders who are guilty of misguiding the innocent masses. The damage that they cause is catastrophic, not only internally for the Jewish people, but for the terrible name they bring to our Torah and our nation, and the raging anti-Semitism that they inspire.)

The Torah word for Greece is Yavan (and the word for the Hellenizers is mityavnim). Hebrew is a divine language and its words carry immense meaning. Yavan is spelled יון, beginning with a lofty yud, a letter representing wisdom and holiness; the letter that begins the Name of God. This is where Yavan begins, in real wisdom (which is partly why it can dupe so many into it). However, it soon descends into a vav, a letter denoting physicality, and then further still the line deepens into a nun sofit. The imagery in Yavan is a system that begins at a high point and steadily declines to a miserable nadir. Israel, on the other hand, is ישראל. It also begins with that lofty and wise yud. It progresses into a fiery shin, and then further through various important stages, concluding with a lamed, a letter that literally means “learning” and “teaching”, the only letter in the alphabet that rises “above the line” towards God above. Israel is aiming ever-higher while Yavan, the Hellenist world—whether then or now—inevitably descends into the abyss.

What is happening in the world today is certainly disheartening for anyone who cares about God, morality, and righteousness; anyone who cares about the preservation of faith, innocence, and goodness. We should take solace in knowing that this is a temporary stage, as was the tragedy of ancient Greece, and will undoubtedly collapse in time. Meanwhile, we light our menorahs as brightly as possible, and show the world that the light of truth, holiness, and real Godliness will never be extinguished.

Happy Chanukah!

Kefitzat HaDerekh: Wormholes in the Torah

This week’s parasha, Vayetze, begins with Jacob setting forth towards his mother’s hometown in Haran. We read that on his way he suddenly “bumped into” a special place (Genesis 28:11) that turned out to be Beit El, the “House of God”. Jacob was surprised to find himself there (28:16), presumably the site of the future House of God, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sages (Sanhedrin 95b) explain what happened:

“And Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva, and went to Haran…” is followed by “and he happened upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set.” For when he reached Haran, he said: “Shall I have passed through the place in which my fathers prayed, without doing so likewise?!” He wished therefore to return, but no sooner had he thought of this than the earth instantly contracted and he “happened upon” that place.

Our Sages state that a miracle occurred after Jacob had reached Haran. He regretted not stopping by at the site of the future Temple Mount, where Abraham and Isaac had prayed, so the earth beneath his feet seemingly “contracted” and he was suddenly teleported to Jerusalem. In fact, the Sages state that such a miracle occurred for three people in the Tanakh: first was Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, then Jacob in this week’s parasha, and finally King David’s general Avishai. There is Scriptural proof for each one. For instance, when Eliezer had arrived in Haran he declared “I came today to the well” (Genesis 24:42), implying he had set out on his journey that same day. Eliezer was miraculously able to go from Be’er Sheva to Haran, a significantly long journey, in under a day.

This phenomenon would later become known as kefitzat haderekh, “jumping the path”, and would appear in Rabbinic narratives as well. Angels have a similar ability to seemingly teleport across vast distances. In one story, Rav Kahana was once selling some wares and a female customer tried to seduce him (Kiddushin 40a). He quickly fled in distress and ran to the nearest window and jumped! The angel-prophet Eliyahu appeared and caught him, complaining that he had to instantly travel a distance of “four hundred parasangs” to save him. A parasang, or parsa, is the average distance a person walks in 72 minutes—generally thought to be about 5 kilometres. So, Eliyahu flew some 2000 kilometres in a flash to catch the rabbi. Rav Kahana apologized and lamented that due to his poverty he had to resort to being a salesman. Eliyahu gave him a vessel full of money to free him from his job.

Meanwhile, the Zohar (I, 4b-5a) states that the malevolent angel Samael can traverse as much as 6000 parsas in a single moment. This number is not arbitrary, for the Talmud calculates that the Earth’s circumference is 6000 parsas (Pesachim 94a). This is an incredible piece of Talmudic science, considering how little of the globe was known then. Today, we know that Earth’s exact circumference is 40,075 km at the equator, a value close to that of our Sages. In fact, if making the correct assumption that the Sages must have been exact in their knowledge, we might be able to properly identify the length of a Talmudic parsa.

Although it is generally calculated in halakhah that a parsa is between 4 and 5 kilometres, by dividing 40,075 km by 6000 we can conclude that a parsa must be closer to 6.68 kilometres. This is also more in line with the notion that a parsa is a distance of 72 minutes: The average walking speed of humans is 5 km per hour (1.42 metres per second, according to the most precise measurements), so defining a parsa as 6.68 km is much closer to the scientific reality.

Jacob’s Ladder through Spacetime

The Talmud (Chullin 91b) calculates that the distance of the Heavenly Ladder that Jacob saw in his vision was a whopping 8000 parsas, which would be over 50,000 km. The word used by our Sages is rochav, meaning “width”. A superficial reading of the Talmud suggests that each angel is 2000 parsas wide (based on Daniel 10:6), and since Jacob saw four angels, the width of the Ladder must have been 8000 parsas. However, this does not make sense if taken literally, for why would an angel’s form be 2000 parsas wide? And if it was, how could Jacob even capture the sight of an angel in his limited field of view? The Talmud must be teaching something else. The big question here is why use the language of width as opposed to length or height, as might be expected?

When it comes to understanding the cosmos, we always speak of a “fabric of spacetime”. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Albert Einstein is pioneering the science behind it, proving that the three dimensions of space and the dimension of time are not separate, but interwoven together. With this, he was able to explain gravity a lot more accurately, demonstrating that larger bodies make a bigger “dip” in the fabric, pulling objects towards them kind of like a penny rolling around a funnel. And because they are integrated, strong gravitational effects can warp both space and time. We typically visualize spacetime as a flat “fabric”, with celestial objects scattered all over it. In fact, today we know that the universe does indeed appear to be flat (with a margin of error of about 0.4%). This is of tremendous significance.

In the Torah, the term aretz can refer to both Earth proper, and the wider physical universe at large. When we read that in the beginning God created et shamayim v’et ha’aretz, we do not define it simply as the “sky” and the “earth”, for those were not created until Days Two and Three. Rather, God created the entire spiritual realm (shamayim) and the entire physical universe (aretz). Our Sages noted long ago that the root of aretz (ארץ) is the same as ratz (רץ), “running”, since everything in this universe is in perpetual motion. More incredibly, today we know that the universe is constantly expanding, and we see distant stars “running away” from us. As such, when the Tanakh uses an idiom like kanfot ha’aretz, the “corners” or “edges” of the universe, it may be read quite literally. For a long time, there were people who understood these Torah statements as implying a flat Earth, when in reality they could have been alluding to a deeper scientific understanding regarding the “flatness” of the entire universe.

And that brings us back to the precise Talmudic language of rochav, “width”, in a place where we might have expected height. Of course, we do have a dimension of height. However, when zooming out to a “flat” universe, we really only visualize it in terms of width, as if on a two-dimensional plane. Going further, Einstein later showed, together with another Jewish scientist named Nathan Rosen, that it would be theoretically possible to “bend” spacetime and connect two points that are vastly far apart. It would be like folding over the fabric and then poking a hole through both layers. Such an “Einstein-Rosen bridge”, better known as a wormhole, would allow travel across extremely vast distances in a very short period of time. In other words, it would be very much like kefitzat haderekh!  

A wormhole shortens the trip by bending spacetime and forming a bridge.

So, what our Sages may have been secretly implying in describing the width of Jacob’s Ladder is that this wormhole (of sorts) spanned 8000 parsas, or over 50,000 km. This is a distance even wider than the Earth and, scientifically, we would expect wormholes to be very large like this. Such a wormhole was accurately depicted in the film Interstellar, allowing the protagonists to instantly travel to a distant solar system to find a new home for mankind:

It is worth noting that when our Sages described the teleportation of Jacob, they said that kaftzah ha’aretz, again using that term aretz, and implying that it “jumped” or “contracted” for him. So, another term for this phenomenon, truer to the language of the Talmud, would be kefitzat ha’aretz, the warping of the spacetime fabric of this universe. Kefitzat haderekh is accurate, too, implying that one “jumped the path”, finding an alternate shortcut from one point in the universe to another. This appears to have happened at Sinai, as well. Our Sages likened Jacob’s Ladder to the Sinai Revelation, and the Zohar (I, 149a, Sitrei Torah) even notes that the numerical value of “ladder” (סלם) and “Sinai” (סיני) is the same—130. At Sinai, too, a “wormhole” opened up allowing 22,000 angelic “chariots” to descend upon the mountain (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3).

Theoretical physics aside, can we actually create such wormholes? In 2017, scientists succeeded in producing tiny, microscopic wormholes for the first time. It is certainly possible that in the near future we will have the technology to open up larger wormholes, making rapid travel across God’s vast universe feasible. It appears that God’s angels already employ such a wormhole-style system of travel, traversing thousands of parsas instantaneously. It might help explain the Tower of Babel episode which, as we’ve mentioned in the past, was not simply a tower but meant to “lift off” and “conquer” the Heavens.

Our Sages long ago taught that the people who built the Tower knew the wisdom of the angels and were using angelic powers to accomplish their plans (see, for instance, Zohar I, 76a). God “came down” to confound them. He wiped their memories and jumbled their languages so that they wouldn’t be able to collaborate in such a megalomaniacal way. Today, we live in a world that is once more getting real close to being “of singular language and singular words” (Genesis 11:1), and once again we see science stepping into the dangerous territory of “playing God”. Hopefully this time humanity will get it right and use the astounding abilities that God made possible in His universe only for the good.

The Zohar Prophecy That Changed History

This week’s parasha, Toldot, begins with a focus on Isaac, now forty years old and finally married. Commenting on this, the Zohar says some incredible things. Embedded here in the Zohar is a deeply mystical text known as Midrash HaNe’elam, “the Hidden Midrash”. It is both an integral part of the Zohar (with others sections of it peppered throughout the Zohar’s many volumes) and a distinct work with its own flavour. It, too, dates back to the 2nd century CE teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Midrash HaNe’elam explains that Isaac was “brought back to life”, so to speak, by his wife Rebecca. How so? Continue reading