Tag Archives: Civilization

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!

Unicorns in the Torah

Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday, and her favourite thing in the world is unicorns. Perhaps this is because the unicorn makes a hidden appearance in her parasha, this week’s parasha, Vayak’hel-Pekudei. In summarizing the construction of the Mishkan, the Torah notes that it was made with the skins of the tachash (Exodus 35:7). The tachash is a mysterious animal whose true identity is entirely unknown. The Talmud (Shabbat 28b) states that it was a unique mammal species, wild and undomesticated, with a singular horn on its head. It came specifically in the time of Moses to be used for the Mishkan, and has since disappeared. The Talmud goes on to suggest that it was probably the same animal that was brought by Adam as a sacrifice in the Garden of Eden. This ties to another passage in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) that explains how Adam brought a thanksgiving offering to God, of a unique animal with a single horn, as it states in Psalms 69:32 that “it shall please God better than an ox with horn and hooves.” Elsewhere (Chullin 60a), the Talmud adds that this special animal emerged fully formed, horn-first, from the Earth. The Sages hold that having horn and hooves means it was probably kosher! Continue reading

Chanukah: Did the Jews Really Defeat the Greeks?

“No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…”

– Winston Churchill

Chanukah is perhaps the most famous of Jewish holidays. The nine-branched candelabrum, the chanukiah, is instantly recognized by people around the world. One reason for this is because of the halakhah of pirsumei nissah, literally “publicising the miracle”. Although just about every Jewish holiday revolves around some kind of miracle, it is particularly with regards to Chanukah that there is a special mitzvah to publicize its wonder. And so, one can find a glowing, public chanukiah on display in pretty much every major city on the planet.

Chanukah Around the World

The purpose of the chanukiah is well-known: after defeating the Greeks and recapturing Jerusalem, and its Holy Temple, the Jewish warriors led by the Maccabees discovered only one cruse of oil for the Temple menorah (this one with seven branches, as the Torah commands). Although the oil was meant to last only for one day, it miraculously burned for eight, the amount of time necessary to produce a fresh batch of olive oil.

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem's Temple Institute

Temple Menorah Replica by Jerusalem’s Temple Institute

This is the story as recounted in the Talmud. However, the more ancient Book of Maccabees (which is part of the apocrypha, scriptural texts that did not make it into the official Biblical canon) provides a different reason for the eight-day festival. Here, we are told that since the Temple was still in the hands of the Greeks two months earlier, the Jewish nation was unable to celebrate the Torah festival of Sukkot. Of all the Torah-mandated holidays, Sukkot is most associated with the Temple, and was celebrated with many offerings on the altar, along with water libations, and eight days of revelry. Since the people were unable to commemorate Sukkot properly in the month of Tishrei, they decided to commemorate it in the month of Kislev instead, now that the Temple was back in Jewish hands. So, they kept an eight-day festival, with offerings, libations, and revelry, both in honour of the belated Sukkot, and to celebrate their victory over the Greeks.

A David and Goliath Story

Chanukah is a beautiful underdog narrative. The mighty Syrian-Greeks (better known as the Seleucids, to differentiate them from the mainland Greeks in Europe) are imposing their Hellenism upon the conquered and impoverished Jewish people, still struggling to rebuild after the decimation of the First Temple period. The Greek king, Antiochus, demands the sacrifice of a pig upon a Jewish altar, and the Jews refuse. Well, at least some of them do.

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit-Jniemenmaa)

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, of Chanukah fame, at the Altes Museum in Berlin (Credit: Jniemenmaa)

At the time, there were many Hellenized, assimilated Jews among the masses that were very much okay with a pig on the altar. (It seems that history repeats itself: the first graduation ceremony in 1883 of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, consisted of frog legs, crabs, and shrimp, among other non-kosher foods, earning it the nickname, “the treif banquet”.) Matityahu the High Priest wouldn’t have any of it, and together with his five sons—soon to be known as the “Maccabees”—started a revolution.

More than anything else, this was a civil war between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Of course, the Hellenized Jews had support from the Greek government, which soon brought in some 60,000 troops, together with war elephants, according to the Book of I Maccabees (4:28-29). The Maccabee forces managed to scramble 10,000 mostly-untrained, guerrilla warriors. Ultimately, the 10,000 overpower the professional Greek army. The Seleucid Empire would never be the same again, and less than a century later, would totally come to an end.

Spiritual vs. Physical

Today, the Chanukah story often carries the same message: the Greeks were materialistic, promiscuous, Godless people, while the Jews were moral, spiritual, and God-fearing. Chanukah, then, celebrates the triumph of righteousness over licentiousness, religion over secularism, spirituality over physicality.

While the above description of the Seleucid-Syrian-Greeks may be true, it presents a false image of the Greeks as a whole, and one that isn’t at all consistent with traditional Jewish holy texts, especially the Talmud. In truth, the great Jewish sages of the Talmud valued and respected the Greeks. They stated (Megillah 8b) that it is forbidden to translate the Torah into any language, except Greek, which the rabbis considered a rich and beautiful tongue. The rabbis also adopted the Greek style of democratic government, with elected officials sitting on the Sanhedrin, from the Greek root synedrion, meaning “sitting together”.

One of the earliest known synedrions was established by Alexander the Great, made up of representatives from across his vast empire to assist him in government. The Talmudic sages spoke highly of Alexander the Great. According to legend, Alexander saw a vision of the Jewish High Priest before coming to conquer Jerusalem. There are several versions of this story, but all agree that Alexander was grateful to the High Priest, and spared Israel from his destructive conquests (as well as from paying tribute, according to some sources). In turn, the rabbis adopted “Alexander” as an honorary Jewish name. Indeed, one of the sages of the Talmud is Rabbi Alexandri, and many other rabbis have Greek names, such as Hyrcanus, Teradion, Antigonus, Dosa, Papa, Symmachus, and Tarfon.

These rabbis gathered in various learning academies across Israel and Persia (producing the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, respectively). Their academies were very similar to the Greek academy. In fact, the successors of a Greek academy spoke very much like the rabbis of the Talmud, quoting teachings from previous generations and debating them, while citing an uninterrupted chain of tradition all the way back to Plato, much the same way that rabbis cite an uninterrupted tradition back to Moses. Many of their modes of reasoning and dialectics were the same, too, even lesser-used forms such as gematria, another Greek word adopted by Judaism. The Greeks had also used their alphabet for numerology (an art that they called isopsephy).

Greek traditions appear to have even found their way into Jewish holidays. In ancient Greece, families would get together for symposia, parties in which they would recount the history of Greece and its great victories. According to the Greek philosophers, it was best to drink three cups of wine at a symposium, while drinking five cups was considered excessive and inappropriate. Thus, most people drank four cups. They would lie on couches, specifically on their left side. Recounting history while drinking four cups of wine and lying on one’s left—sound familiar? Let’s not forget that afikoman is itself a Greek word (epikomon, literally “that which comes after” or “that which comes last”, referring to either dessert or the concluding festive songs).

While the ancient Greeks certainly held onto a number of abhorrent beliefs and practices, to suggest that all the Greeks were atheistic, unjust, or not spiritual is certainly untrue. Socrates was killed for criticizing Athenian injustice, Plato preached how illusory this physical world is, and Aristotle described metaphysics and theology as the “first philosophy” and most important of subjects. One of the earliest known preachers of reincarnation was Pythagoras, who also wrote of three souls, much like the Jewish conception of nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Nor is it a secret that some of the angels mentioned in the Talmud bear Greek titles, among them Sandalfon and Metatron.

So, did the Jews really defeat the Greeks? We certainly defeated the immoral and oppressive Seleucid Greeks in battle, but definitely not the Greek spirit as a whole. In fact, some might argue that Judaism is the best preservation of ancient Greek culture in the modern world! Whereas the rest of society has moved on to other methods of education, we still have a yeshiva system like the ancient Academy. While others celebrate their holidays with gifts and formal dinners, we gather in symposia, reliving the words of our sages, who openly bore their Greek names. And of course, while most of society is primarily concerned with what’s happening on television, we’re still trying to be philosophers, debating the finest points of reality.

The Greeks had a profound impact on all of civilization, and Judaism was not immune from it. Perhaps this is why, over time, the holiday became less about defeating Greeks and more about the miracle of light. Chanukah is a holiday celebrating Jewish resilience, and symbolizing the power of light over darkness, and hope over despair. It is a lesson in resisting assimilation and being true to ourselves; in standing up for what’s right and upholding our customs; and most importantly, in the longest, blackest nights of winter, Chanukah teaches us that although the world may be full of evil, one tiny flame can break through all the darkness.


The article above is adapted from Garments of Light: 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion and Holidays. Click here to get the book!