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.
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.)
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.