The Reconciliation Of Hellenism And Judaism


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:14 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 41:1–44:17; Numbers 7:30-41
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Havdalah: 5:18 p.m.

As children, we learn that Chanukah is about the victory of the Judeans over the Greek-Syrians, Jews over Gentiles. We know from the Books of the Maccabees and Josephus, the Second Commonwealth historian, however, that the struggle began as a civil war, a battle between brothers waged in order to determine the future direction of the Jewish people. Hellenistic Jews fought Torah-based Jews; assimilationist Jews fought traditionalist Jews; would be Greeks fought old-fashioned committed Jews.

But the traditionalists won, they did not banish Greek culture, never to allow it again in Judea. Not only have thousands of Greek words (and via those words, Greek concepts) entered the Talmud and Midrash, but Greek philosophy, science and aesthetics have found a place in the corpus of Jewish literature, especially through great commentators and codifiers such as Maimonides. A brief comment in the Midrash Shahar should mute the idea that Judea rejected Hellas: “The Midrash breaks the word Zion into its two components. The first letter, the tzaddi represents the holy, righteous Jews while the last three letters yud, vav, nun spell out Yavan, the Hebrew word for Greece. We’re being told that at the very heart of everything revered in Judaism — Zion — there must be the beauty of Greece. The question is to what extent?”

The Talmud cites the verse, “May God expand Yaphet and may he (Yaphet) dwell in the tents of Shem” [Genesis 9:27] as proof that the Torah was not to be translated into any language except Greek [Megillah 9b]. The verse is Noah’s blessing to Japheth and Shem for their modest behavior after he was shamed by their brother Ham. The Talmud’s reading of the verse turns Yaphet and Shem into symbols; Yaphet, the forerunner of Greece, and Shem, the progenitor of Israel. The expansion of Yaphet is the beautiful Greek language “which shall dwell in the tents of Shem,” when the Torah is translated into Greek.

The Midrash adds: “Let the beauty of Yaphet be incorporated into the tents of Shem” which has come to mean the ability to extract the positive aspects of Greek culture and synthesize them with our eternal Torah.

It is fascinating that Chanukah always coincides with Torah portions recording the struggle between Joseph (Yosef) and his brothers. A parallel can be drawn between Joseph’s struggle and traditional Judea’s struggle with Hellenism.

Joseph’s roots were nomadic, his ancestors were shepherds. Pastoral life, as we know, allows the soul to soar; a shepherd has the leisure to compose music and poetry, as well as to meditate on the Torah and communicate with the Divine.

But even in the pastures, Joseph was dreaming of a new world. His dreams were focused on agriculture (the Egyptian occupation which came after shepherding). What upsets the brothers is not just an event in a dream (their sheaves bowing to his), but the very fact that sheaves are featured at all. Sheaves represent not only agriculture, but also modernism, a break with tradition.

Joseph’s second dream is about the sun, moon and stars. Again, it isn’t so much the events of the dream that disturbs, but its universalistic elements. The brothers could have understood a dream of the cosmos with God at the center, but Joseph himself is at the center, like the Greek message: “Man is the measure of all things,” man and not God. Moreover, the Bible says Joseph gloried in his physical appearance, his being of beautiful form and fair visage — yafeh (beautiful) like Yafet (Greece) [Gen. 39:6].  As Heinrich Heine said, “For the Greeks, beauty is truth; for the Hebrews, truth is beauty.”

Everyone loves Joseph — handsome, clever, urbane, the perfect guest, dazzling you with his knowledge of languages, including the language of dreams. Joseph is the cosmopolitan Grand Vizier of Egypt, the universalist. Joseph is more Yavan-like than Shem-like, more similar to Greek-Hellenism than to Abrahamic-Hebraism.

Hence, the tensions between Joseph and his brothers are not unlike the tensions between Hellenism and Hebraism. But Joseph matures, and by the time he stands before Pharaoh, he does see God at the center: “Not I, but rather God will interpret the dreams to the satisfaction of Pharaoh” [Gen. 41: 15]. 

And Judah will remind Joseph of the centrality of his family and ancestral home, establishing the first house of study (a yeshiva) in the Egyptian city of Goshen [Gen. 49: 22 and Rashi]. Judah, symbolizing Torah and repentance, will receive the spiritual birthright [Gen. 49:10] and Joseph will receive the blessings of material prosperity [Gen. 49: 22]. The two will join together for the glory of Zion and Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.