How do the Greeks go down in Jewish history books? Are they the “good guys” or the “bad guys?” A look at the Chanukah story offers a seemingly obvious answer: the Greeks were the bad guys and the Maccabees were the good guys. However, when taking a closer look at Jewish historical and philosophical sources, the matter is not as simple as it may seem. The clash between Jewish and Greek cultures seems to be so great, only because of the profound similarities. When thinking of the relationship between the Jewish and Greek culture, one cannot help but think of Sigmund Freud’s words: “not infrequently…friend and enemy have coincided in the same person.”
The rabbis teach us that while it is forbidden to write a kosher Torah scroll in any language other than its original Hebrew, there is one exception to that – one can write it in Greek. The rabbis (Megilah 9b) learn this from the verse “May God expand Japheth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem” (Bereishit 9:27). The rabbis understand this to be teaching that “the beauty of Yefet—Greece—may dwell in the tents of Shem (the Jews).” The fact that the only two languages in which a kosher Torah can be written are Hebrew and Greek, speaks volumes of the place of importance that Greece holds in Judaism.
Furthermore, the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (the Rambam) writes of Aristotle with great admiration and goes as far as saying that Aristotle has come as close as possible to being a prophet, without actually being a prophet. Maimonides also writes that the only scientific work he can be sure is true in its understanding of the natural world is that of Aristotle. This and more show a strong intellectual and cultural bond between Jewish and Greek culture; a strong reciprocal relationship of similarities, cooperation, and exchange[i].
And yet, after all this, the relationship still seems to have many sour– and even bitter– aspects to it. Most obvious is the impression we get from the story of Chanukah, but further examples are not rare either. The Midrash[ii] understands that the “darkness” Hashem created in the book of Bereishit is also referring to the Greek Empire; which “darkened the eyes of the Jewish people with their evil decrees.” Furthermore, the Mishna[iii] states that the rabbis made a special statute banning fathers from teaching their children Greek. In another place, the Talmud states[iv] that it is appropriate to fast on the 8th day of Tevet since that is the day the Torah was translated into Greek. These sources and more, show a strong discontent and an unfavorable—if not outright – animus between Judaism and Greek culture.
So are we and the Greeks, friends or enemies? Are the Greeks indeed the “beauty of Yefet,” or are they “darkness cast upon the world?”
Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1980) explains[v] that the root of the rivalry between Jewish and Greek culture lies in the profound similarities between the two. The common path they take, and the sharp pivot that this leads to, is the source of both the hostility—and reverence— each has for the other.
Like the Jews, the Greeks valued wisdom tremendously. They saw the importance of asking questions about the meaning and substance of this world, and found the very engagement in finding answers to the great questions of life, to be worthy and noble. Together, Jews and Greeks seem to be traveling this shared path until a sharp pivot takes place; a pivot which would set us apart forever. At some point along this path, the Greeks concluded that this world is all there is, and that what is not material and physical does not matter. This in stark contrast to the Jewish belief that what matters most, is not the matter, but the supernatural.
But it does not stop there. Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, (1512-1609) points out[vi] another gap between Jewish and Greek schools of thought. Both Jews and Greeks emphasized the intellect and intellectualism; however, the Greeks gave the human intellect a supreme and undisputed status, while the Jews deferred to Godly knowledge and Divine revelation. These stark differences, albeit following great similarities, made the Jews realize that Greek and Jewish cultures, despite the similarities, are irreconcilable.
The Greeks were originally fascinated by the Jewish pursuit of knowledge. However, when they realized that the Jews were submitting to the superior and supernatural[vii] source of knowledge, they came to be at odds with the Jewish faith and developed great contempt for it. The Greeks then went on to ban the Jewish religion. Judaism was the only religion that they had banned in all of the places they had ruled, as well, it was the first religion in the ancient world to be banned.
The story of Chanukah and the story of the Jewish-Greek love-hate relationship is a lesson in the power of similarities and differences. As the great American author Stephen Cover put it best, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.” The power of survival of the Jewish people did not lie in our ability to see our similarities with the Greeks and disregard the differences. What made spiritual survival possible for the Jewish people was the uncompromising refusal to abandon the differences in favor of the similarities. It was the war against the temptation of abandoning who we are for the strong commonalities we had with the Greeks, and the victory of maintaining our strengths through our differences.
Happy Chanukah. [viii]
[ii] Breishit Rabbah, 2:4
[iii] Sotah 9:14
[iv] Megillah 3A and Megilat Ta’anit last chapter
[v] Pachad Yitzchak, Channukah, Ma’amar 4
[vi] Ner Mitzvah page 21
[vii] See Ramban Vayikra 16:8 on how Aristotle’s mistake—and arrogance—was to believe that anything he cannot feel or fully understand must not exist.
[viii] Special thanks to Rabbi Josh Flug whose mareh mekomot has been very helpful for writing this article