Judaism vs. Hellenism

Judaism vs. Hellenism

Why did the interaction of the Greeks and the Jews create such problems?

What was there about Hellenism that lured so many Jews to assimilate and at the same time, aroused in other Jews such staunch opposition?

Ironically, Greek culture and Judaism are the roots of modern Western civilization. And, in fact, they are similar in that both cultures put great value on understanding the world and the use of one’s intellect. The Greeks nurtured the great philosophers and gave the world Plato and Aristotle. The Jews gave the world the Torah, the Talmud, and the basic concept of ethical monotheism. If both sought “Truth” in the world, why were they hostile to one another?

In order to understand the Chanukah story, it is necessary to understand the differences between these two cultures. Here is a basic outline of Judaism versus Hellenism:

Judaism
Hellenism
One G-d
The belief in one G-d is the first of the Ten Commandments. Judaism believes not only that there is only one G-d who created everything, but that G-d is actively involved in ruling the world.
Gods, Goddesses and
Who Knows What!
The Greeks believed in a multitude of gods. For each object or state of nature there was a different god or goddess, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Poseidon, the god of the sea.
Man in the Image of G-d
The Jewish view of the Divine is that G-d has no physical form. The Torah does, however, often speak of G-d in human terms, such as “a jealous G-d” or G-d took us out of Egypt with “an outstretched arm.” These are all, however, understood to be metaphors used to help humans relate to G-d by speaking in familiar terms. One of the Thirteen Principle of Faith laid out by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam) is that G-d has no corporeal form.
Gods in the Image of Man
The Greeks gods were almost all conceptualized as humans with supernatural powers. Not only did they possess the same physical image as humankind, but the Greek deities even had human lusts and passions. Greek mythology is filled with images of gods fighting in jealous rivalries, plotting against one another and innocent mortals, and pursuing human lovers. In fact, numerous gods in mythology are born out of god-human relationships. By creating gods who were as spoiled and egocentric as humans, it was easy for a person to negate the will of a god by saying it was the will of a rival god.
The Beauty of Balance
Judaism views the physical body as a partner with the soul. Humankind was created from the physical and from the spiritual (And the L-rd G-d formed the human being of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Genesis 2:7). This dual level of creation distinguishes humans from animals (completely of the lower world) and angels (completely of the upper worlds), neither of which have free-will. It is the Jewish belief that people must work throughout their lives to synthesize the physical and the spiritual. Finding this balance is, in Judaism’s view, true beauty. Since the Jewish view is that humankind was created in the image of G-d (Genesis 1:27), it is impossible to come to a conclusion that a human may supplement the Divine.
Beauty as Ideal
Greek culture placed the highest value on the physical and gave the world the idea that beauty is, in itself, a supreme ideal. Epitomizing this worship of the physical was the Greek passion for athletics. Among their first actions, the Greeks built gymnasiums in every city they conquered. The Greek athletics were held in the nude, highlighting the beauty of the human being. This physical glorification is one example of the Hellenistic view of nature as supreme. The attitude that the greatness of the human being ruled over the belief in the power of their gods, culminated in Plato’s view that there was a Divine creation, and and then the world was left to run itself.

 

 

These differences created a clash of cultures. The Greeks could not understand why the Jews did not instantly embrace their culture, which catered to the human’s physical desires. They were infuriated by the Jewish refusal to accept Hellenism. In their need to rid the world of Judaism, they singled out three mitzvot (commandments): The sanctification of the new month, the Sabbath, and circumcision. Here’s why:

Rosh Chodesh/the Sanctification of the New Month – The Jewish people follow a lunar calendar and the very first commandment to the Jewish people in the Torah is: “This month shall be yours as the first of months.” This commandment instructs Jews to sanctify the beginning of each new month, when the moon first reappears in the sky. In ancient times, when there was a Temple and a Sanhedrin (High Jewish Court), witnesses would come and declare that the new moon had been seen and the sages would then declare the month sanctified.

What then could be the problem with setting a calendar? When the Jews sanctified the new moon, it, in effect, stated to the world that G-d is in control of time. The month was not declared based on the counting of days, but rather based on the appearance of the new moon, according to G-d’s commandment of how the months should be calculated. Since the Greeks wished to show that humankind was in control of nature, they felt threatened by the Jewish concept of Divinely ordained time. Also, by denying the Jews the ability to sanctify the new month, they inhibited the proper celebration of the Jewish holidays, which are based on dates which start with the declaration of the start of each new month.

The Sabbath – “Six days shall you work and do all your labor, but the seventh day is Shabbat for the Lord your G-d. On it, you shall do no [creative] work.” The seventh day is the Jewish Sabbath on which a Jew does no work. Why did the Greeks have a problem with a day of rest? The Hellenistic culture was a center of great creativity. From ancient Greek traditions, the Western world has inherited a remarkable legacy of literature, sculpture, philosophy, and architecture. Through their marvelous creations, the Greeks proclaimed their might over the world. Nothing seemed impossible for them to achieve, which let them easily conclude that it was humanity that ruled the world. The idea of taking one day to let G-d run the world negated the Greek belief in their own control. It also forced them to acknowledge how lightly they treated their own deities, while the Jews were willing to set aside an entire day to their one deity

Circumcision – Remember, the Greeks idealized the beauty of the physical form, particularly the male body, as can be seen in so many of their sculptures. The idea that the Jews would willing mar the body was outrageous to them (of course, leaving a baby to die from exposure wasn’t a problem). On a deeper level, however, circumcision represents humanity’s ability to have control over one’s physical self. The Greeks believed in fulfilling all of their passions, in contrast to Judaism’s devotion to self discipline. While Judaism teaches humankind to strive to be like G-d, the Greeks created gods who acted with less dignity than many humans. Remember, it was Greek mythology that created nymphs and satyrs, philandering gods and promiscuous goddesses. They abhorred circumcision because it focused on the fact that a person is capable of channeling his/her passions.

Chanukah

On Chanukah, Jewish families around the world gather together in their homes and light the Chanukah candles. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the great miracles that happened during the Maccabee revolt in the time of the Second Temple period.

Learn more

Programs and Classes

Host or attend the exciting Chanukah programs and classes provided by NJOP and find out how you or your community can participate.

Resources

Discover, read and download our comprehensive guides and walkthroughs, watch videos and learn about the various aspects of Chanukah.

Articles

Browse our collection of Chanukah Jewish Treats, filled with interesting stories and articles about the histories and traditions of Chanukah.


The Story of Chanukah

The Story of Chanukah

How a small band of Jewish renegades took on the Syrian-Greek army.

Under the Hellenist Rule
When the Greeks conquered the world, they brought with them their highly developed Hellenistic culture – the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, the multitude of Greek gods and goddesses, and the worship of the physical. At first, the Greeks were peaceful rulers, luring Jews to their culture by inviting them in and being open to searching the wisdom of Judaism. In the year 199 B.C.E., however, the land of Judea, which had been under the control of the Ptolemies (Greeks ruling from Egypt), was conquered by the Seleucids (Greeks ruling from Syria).

The Syrian-Greeks did not feel that it was appropriate for the Jews, now their subjects, to maintain their own national culture. By now, they felt, the Jews should have seen the error of their “primitive” ways and grasped the “far more advanced” Hellenistic culture with open arms…and many did. The majority of Jews, however, maintained the heritage of their ancestors, incorporating some Hellenistic activities, but remaining faithful to the Torah.

The Syrian-Greeks tried to force the Jews to assimilate. The study of Torah became a capital crime. If a parent was found to have circumcised an infant son, both the parent and child were put to death. The Syrian-Greeks set up idols in town squares and called the Jews to the square and forced them to bow to the statue or sacrifice a pig before it. They even forced Jewish brides before their marriage to sleep with the local Syrian-Greek commander. Their campaign against Judaism began slowly, but by 168 B.C.E. they had desecrated the Holy Temple by setting a statue of Zeus in the main plaza.

 

The Maccabees Arise
In the town of Modiin, west of Jerusalem, lived a man named Mattitiyahu (Mattithias). He was from the Hasmonean family, which is one of the branches of the Kohanim (priests). In 167 B.C.E., Syrian-Greek soldiers came to the town and demanded that the Jews sacrifice a pig to one of their gods. Knowing that Mattitiyahu was considered a righteous leader, they signaled him out. But Mattitiyahu refused to sacrifice the animal, even under threat of death. Not all the Jews of Modiin were so brave and devoted. When one of his fellow townsmen stepped forward and volunteered to sacrifice the pig, Mattitiyahu, outraged at the treacherous act, grabbed a sword and slew the heretic. Mattitiyahu’s sons joined him and they attacked the soldiers, decimating the force by the end of the day. Needless to say, Mattitiyahu and his sons fled Modiin and took refuge in the hills. While Mattitiyahu began the revolt, he did not live to see its end. After his passing, within a year of the start of the revolt, the leadership was taken up by his son Judah, a valiant soldier and a wise tactician. In the hill, Judah gathered a band of Jewish freedom fighters who were prepared to fight for the Jewish way of life. They became known as the Maccabees.

 

The Joy of Victory
Under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, the Jews led a guerilla war to free their nation, their primary goal being to cleanse Jerusalem and the Holy Temple from the pagan idols desecrating it.

It was a challenging fight, with the vast power, might and numbers on the side of the Syrian-Greeks. But the Jews had a steadfast will and the knowledge that they were fighting for G-d and Torah. In 165 B.C.E., the Maccabees succeeded in retaking the Temple. They were aghast, however to find that the soldiers had thoroughly rampaged and desecrated the holy site.

The Jews immediately set to work removing statues, scrubbing the altar, and the many tasks necessary to rededicate the Temple. On the southern side of the sanctuary stood the grand, golden Menorah, but there was no oil with which to light it. As the Jews cleansed the Temple they searched for an unopened jar of pure oil. When all seemed lost, however, one small jar, with its seal still in tact, was found. The Jews rejoiced and hurried to the Menorah to rededicate the Temple.

One small jar of oil…It would take another week for a fresh jar of pure olive oil to be made. The Jews were in a quandary. Do they light the Menorah and let it fizzle out while they waited for more oil, or do they wait and use the oil the day before the new oil will arrive, in order to keep the flame continuous. Not wanting to put off the mitzvah, they decided to light the Menorah – and the miracle of Chanukah occurred. Despite the small quantity of oil, THE MENORAH REMAINED LIT FOR THE ENTIRE EIGHT DAYS, announcing to the world that G-d’s presence once again resided in the Temple.

Chanukah

On Chanukah, Jewish families around the world gather together in their homes and light the Chanukah candles. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the great miracles that happened during the Maccabee revolt in the time of the Second Temple period.

Learn more

Programs and Classes

Host or attend the exciting Chanukah programs and classes provided by NJOP and find out how you or your community can participate.

Resources

Discover, read and download our comprehensive guides and walkthroughs, watch videos and learn about the various aspects of Chanukah.

Articles

Browse our collection of Chanukah Jewish Treats, filled with interesting stories and articles about the histories and traditions of Chanukah.