Greek and Jewish Spirituality

Nov 24, 2014
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Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

1. The Greeks prohibited the observance of Shabbat, Brit Mila (circumcision), and Kiddush Hachodesh (court sanctification of a new month based on the new moon). Why did these three Mitzvot bother them more than the other 610 Mitzvot?

2. They also prohibited the study and dissemination of Torah Sheba’al Peh (Oral Torah) while elevating the Torah Shebichtav (Written Torah) by translating it into Greek. Why did they make this striking distinction?

The texts dealing with Chanuka offer additional questions.

3. Megilat Ta’anit discusses the Chanuka miracle. The Rabbis ask: “Why did they make Chanuka eight days? The other Chanukot (consecrations of the Mishkan by Moshe Rabbeinu and the first Temple by Shlomo) were seven days! The Hashmonaim entered the Heichal (Sanctuary of the Temple), built and plastered the Altar, fixed the service vessels, and were occupied with [the Heichal] for eight days.” The Rabbis give the impression of an almost artificially prolonged process lasting eight days. What did the Hashmonaim do that required no less than eight days, and what are the Rabbis revealing by emphasizing this?

4. In the Midrash on the second verse of the Torah, the Rabbis teach that the forces behind the Jewish exiles existed from the time of creation. V’Haretz Hayta Tohu – Zu Malchut Bavel… : “The earth was desolate,” this is the Babylonian kingdom… ; VaVohu – Zu Malchut Madai… : “and chaotic” this is the kingdom of Persia… ; V’Choshech – Zu Malchut Yavan, Sheichshicha Eneihem Shel Yisrael B’Gzeroteihem… : “and darkness” this is the kingdom of Greece, which darkened the eyes of the Jews with their decrees. The Greeks, who loved wisdom, were the most enlightened society until that time. Most of western thought, culture, and intellectual and academic disciplines originates from it. They even appreciated the wisdom of the Torah and wanted the Torah translated into Greek to understand it better. Chazal respected wisdom, and they teach us: Chochma BaGoyim Ta’amin, wisdom can be found among non-Jewish nations. It is therefore strange that the Rabbis chose to call this enlightened society “Choshech,” darkness.

To understand these questions, we need to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict between Jewish and Greek ideology.

Noach had three sons, Shem, Cham, and Yafet, who became the forefathers of the world cultures. The Jewish people descend from Shem, which is translated as “name,” the essence of an object and its internal reality. The Greeks descend from Yafet, which comes from the word Yofi, representing external beauty. The Greeks placed primary value on externals: strength, the physical body, majority over the minority, survival of the fittest. Their ideology required men to respect the laws of nature and to try to dominate it. When necessary, they would pay the required homage to the gods of nature. These gods were imbued with human characteristics, lusts and limitations. What was seen on the outside counted; what was hidden inside did not exist. Their wisdom was based on what man, through his intellect, could deduce and understand. Chazal called that “Chochma Chitzonit,” exterior wisdom.

In contrast, the Jews believe in the existence of an inner dimension of reality, Pnimiyut, which is not observable. It contains the essence of all that is observable and is rooted in the divine. Aspects of creation, such as nature, Torah, or even Man, are all an outward revelation of G-d. The fundamental conflict between Israel and Greece is revealed in the names of our ancestors: The Pnimiyut of Shem or the Chitzoniyut of Yafet; the inner dimension, or the surface; the hidden essence or “what you see is what you get.”

The Torah itself contains an outer dimension, the Written Torah, and an inner dimension, the Oral Torah, which contains the hidden Divine aspects of Torah. It is like the “personality of the Torah,” accessible only through intense intellectual struggle coupled with Divine inspiration. The Written Torah is accessible to all nations. It has no real impact on a person when it is studied only on its surface without the inner dimension. The non-Jewish world can have the Bible and be so little influenced by it. This is exactly the kind of Torah the Greeks believed in: a wisdom that need not change the essence of the person nor bring with it any obligations, that has no inner effect. Torah was seen as any other wisdom. It was translated into Greek to show that even the Torah could be part of their curriculum. The Jews had no monopoly on it.

From the perspective of wisdom and intellect, the Greeks appeared correct, and the Jews were a threat to this limited perspective. The Greek defence was to usurp the Written Torah for themselves, and eradicate the concept of an Oral Torah. We say in Al Hanisim: Lehashkicham Toratecha (to make us forget YOUR Torah) U’Leha’aviram Mechukei Retzonecha (and to make them transgress your statutes). Chukim, statutes, are the Torah laws which defy rational explanation, reflecting the hidden inner dimension that exists in the Torah. This is exactly the dimension of Torah the Greeks tried to eradicate. It drove home the fact that there existed wisdom that transcended the wisdom originating in man, and that some laws were not accessible to man’s understanding.

Judaism’s conflict with Western culture in the twentieth century lies in its blatant superficiality and emphasis on externals. It is a natural extension of the perspective that the only reality is one which can be observed and deduced by people. Jews view Torah, with its inner, hidden dimensions, as life itself.

Greek Spirituality vs. Jewish Spirituality:
The Greeks believed that the only reality is the physical reality of nature, and that nature was an absolute. If there were a drought, it was the result of natural cycles, and man has to wait out these natural cycles. If calamities befell the world, geopolitical, economic, social, or psychological factors would explain them. G-d has no input in the world after its creation, and it is propelled by fixed forces.

The Jews believe that there is an ongoing relationship between G-d and man, and that the laws of nature are related to a spiritual reality. These two ideas are embodied in Shabbat and in Kiddush Hachodesh, sanctification of the New Moon. Shabbat, the seventh day, imbues the six days of creation with a Kedusha, an internal spiritual reality which the Greeks denied could exist. And Shabbat embodied a Brit, a covenant, between G-d and the Jewish people, testifying to a unique ongoing relationship between them. Kiddush Hachodesh manifests man’s influence over the spiritual process. Without man’s input, there are holidays but no holiness. Man can actually create (hidden) spiritual reality.

The Number Eight:
The Greeks believed that man is a product of nature and was controlled by it. His physical drives and lusts were an integral part of his essence, and they controlled him. Brit Mila represented Judaism’s conviction of man’s ability to transcend his natural lusts and instincts, to control and elevate them. Man is the unification of the physical body with an inner soul. There is a “Pnimiyut,” and inner dimension, to the external shell. This uniquely Jewish concept of man having the ability to transcend his nature is represented by the number eight. One of the most frequently occurring numbers that we encounter is the number seven. Seven is the number of days of creation of the world, the days of the week, the days of Sukkot and Pesach, the weeks in the Omer cycle, the number of years in Shmita and Yovel cycles, the number of days the Torah considers a woman a Nida, and the number of days required for ritual purification. It is a number very much tied to cycles in nature. It is also the number of Mitzvot for non-Jews, and 70 cows (representing the 70 nations) were sacrificed on Sukkot, a holiday of seven days, and in which non-Jews could have a part. When Bilam brought sacrifices in preparation for cursing the Jews, he brought seven cows and seven rams on seven altars (BamidCh. 23). It is a number associated with universalism as well as the totality of material creation.

The Maharal elaborates on this with the illustration of the six directions in the three-dimensional physical world, plus the center point, which itself has no dimension but is the anchor and the essence of the six directions. This gives a total of seven points, with the seventh representing the spiritual dimension that exists within nature. This spiritual dimension is a property of the natural world. All people, Jews and non-Jews alike search for meaning, for a spiritual significance in their lives.

The number eight, on the other hand, represents a dimension transcending nature. This dimension is reserved exclusively for the Jews. We find the number eight in Brit Mila, the eternal covenant of membership of the Jewish people. Shavuot, the day the Torah was given to the Jewish people, follows the seventh week of seven days, and is considered like the eighth day of Pesach, parallelling Shmini Atzeret as the eighth day of Sukkot. Shmini Atzeret, following the seven days of Sukkot, is designated as a private celebration for the Jews with G-d. In the times of the Beit Hamikdash, only an animal from eight days old could be brought as a sacrifice, after it had been with its mother through one natural cycle of seven days. The number eight is found in things that are unique to the Jewish people and in things which transcend the order of nature.

The conflict between the Jews and the Greeks focused on the existence of the hidden and transcendent dimensions, and man’s ability to access them. Chanuka should be a time for us to clarify how we view the Torah and reality. The Greeks believed that the Torah was another body of knowledge, and man’s goal was to study that knowledge to enable him to function better in the material world, according to his own perceptions of reality. The Jews understood that there is a transcendent dimension of reality, and man, through Torah study and ethical perfection, can access it. A Jew imbued with Torah attains a level of clarity and perfection which is not available in any other way. It adds new light on what we observe.

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