Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 5 December 2015 / 23 Kislev 5776

Chanukah - A Tale of Two Cities

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Allen

Dear Rabbi,

It seems to me that the ancient Greeks promoted good things, such as Science, the Arts and Physical Fitness. Why does Chanukah "celebrate" the opposition to, and victory against, ancient Greek culture?

Dear Allen,

The ancient Greeks are viewed as descending from Yafet, the son of Noach. The name Yafet is related to the Hebrew word for beauty. In fact, the Torah says about Yafet, "May G-d beautify Yafet, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem". (Gen. 9:27) This suggests that the intellectual, aesthetic and physical beauty of Athens was given by G-d, and has a dwelling place within Jerusalem.

So what was the problem?

The Sages taught that although Esav's body was not buried in the cave of Machpela with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, his head was. After trying to bar Jacob from burial in the cave, he was smitten by Chushim the son of Dan, which resulted in Esav's head rolling into the cave where it was sealed. Since Esav's progeny aligned with the ancestors of ancient Europe, we see here as well that when these forces confront Torah they must be opposed. But when these forces have their "head in the right place", they may abide within Judaism.

So the problem with ancient Greek culture was that it used Science, Arts and Fitness to oppose G-d in an attempt to usurp the supremacy of Torah, rather than to take them in their natural role to support and enhance the awareness of G-d in the world and the beauty of His Torah.

This opposition of the world-view of the descendants of Yafet to that of the descendants Shem was manifested in their major decrees against the Jews and the Torah, which prohibited the observance of Shabbat, the sanctification of the new moon and the covenant of circumcision.

Shabbat proclaims that the world was created by the Creator, G-d, and is ruled by Him alone. Rather than using Science to reveal and celebrate the wonders of G-d in Creation, the Greeks used it to dethrone G-d and attribute everything to Nature and natural causes.

Similarly, the sanctification of the new moon expresses our G-d-given ability and mandate to elevate the physical and sensual to holiness. Rather than directing the Divinely-endowed ability to raise mundane aesthetics to the plane of the spiritual, the Greeks used the Arts for pleasure-seeking indulgence in the profane.

Finally, the covenant of circumcision imposes restraint on otherwise unbridled, animalistic desire and deification of bodily perfection. The ancient Greeks, however, prized physical fitness as means of liberation from limitation, where power and prowess were used to subjugate others to themselves, rather than subordinating themselves to Gd.

The approach issuing from ancient Athens — a world without a Creator, life without holiness and a body without restraint — is diametrically opposed to the message of Torah which goes forth from Zion. A Science which sees only itself with no vision of G-d; Art in the form of immoral spectacles which are antithetical to exaltation and sanctity; and Fitness which liberates a conflagration of base impulses — all of these have no role in our “Tent of Shem” unless they are severed from their impure source and elevated for, and made subservient to, the service of G-d.

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