Skip to main content

Chanuka | God and Man According to Judaism and Hellenism

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Word file >>

Summarized by Aviad Hacohen
Translated by Kaeren Fish and Ronnie Ziegler


A proper analysis of the relationship between our world and that of Hellenism requires the type of thorough survey which lies outside the scope of this shiur. I don't know whether I even possess the tools to do justice to such a task, but it certainly cannot be done within the confines of a brief lecture. I intend to limit myself to pointing out some general ideas on this issue.

It is only natural that, starting from childhood, we carry with us cultural baggage (obviously with profound historical roots) which portrays the Greeks as cruel enemies, forces of darkness who came to destroy our world. As a result, this culture is usually drawn in broad, ugly strokes, identifying Greek culture in general with a crude type of idolatry. As a result of this approach, our work is made somewhat easier: in contradistinction to this world of statues and gods stands our true faith. Needless to say, this approach engenders a certain measure of disdain for Greek culture and philosophy.

The disadvantage of such an approach is in fact twofold. Firstly, it does not enable us to get to the crux of the issue and prevents us from understanding the full significance of the conflict between the two cultures in a profound way. Turning the opponent into a "straw man" makes it easier for us to deal with him, but the real battle - in terms of faith and belief, philosophy and culture - is never addressed.

In addition, the diminution of Greek culture and turning it into something childish cuts us off, to some degree, from a culture which does, after all, represent one of the cornerstones of the civilized world, whose influences are felt on many different levels. In the ancient world, Greece represented the dominant culture. Without doubt its contribution to humanity was great, not only in practical matters but also culturally and spiritually. This was a culture which even the great names among the Rishonim could appreciate. Rambam regarded Aristotle as a "half-prophet," and other Rishonim, too, benefited from Greek culture and valued it. Thus, erecting a wall between us and this culture can lead to us voluntarily cutting ourselves off from its considerable wealth.

Thus, on the one hand, it is appropriate to recognize the values espoused by Greek culture, some of which we can agree with. On the other hand, we need to pinpoint where we stand in conflict with this culture - because the conflict is no less heated today that it was in the days of the Chashmonaim.

As a point of departure, I have chosen one specific subject. This aspect - one of the most central ones - in the debate between our world and that of the Greeks can be highlighted by comparing the character of Iyov (Job) with, lehavdil, that of Prometheus (as portrayed both in mythology and in literatures, and especially in Aeschylus' work, Prometheus Bound).

The myth of Prometheus presents him as a bold individual who went up to heaven and stole fire from the gods in order to bring it down to mankind. For this he was punished by Zeus, who chained him to a rock for the rest of his life. While chained to the rock he sings and declares his objection to the actions of the gods, thus expressing his sovereignty and independence. This presents a certain similarity to Iyov (a comparison already dealt with by many) from two points of view: firstly, as regards the subject - a person who is controlled by a higher force, and secondly - from the point of view of the book's structure. Sefer Iyov is quite unique among the books of Tanakh in terms of its outstanding dramatic structure. It contains almost a classic Greek drama: each "character" expresses himself in turn: "monologue," "response," etc.

At the same time, along with the parallels, there is a clear and sharp contrast. The difference expresses itself in the way in which the dialogue is conducted, and in the description of the hero. Aeschylus, with his keen sense of justice, rails against a situation in which a person who has performed a great favor to humanity is punished although he has committed no wrong. There is conflict here between power and justice. The tragedy is that although these two values should work together in harmony, they are in fact in conflict here and ultimately it is power which prevails.

Justice nevertheless survives. Reading the play we sense, in Pascal's famous words, that "Man stands facing a universe which tramples and crushes him, but ultimately man is victorious because he knows that he is being crushed." The human consciousness may actually be crushed, but justice and morality abide with it, and they are preferable to power and might.

Prometheus represents the tragic situation in which a man suffers despite his innocence. At the same time, there certainly exists a possibility that some day Prometheus may succeed in freeing himself of his chains, as presented in Shelley's play of the early 19th century - "Prometheus Unbound."

How great is the disparity between this description and the one we find in Sefer Iyov! The question of the relationship between power and justice runs through Sefer Iyov, too. According to certain opinions among Chazal, sharp criticism is leveled against Iyov's stand. At the conclusion of the first chapter of Bava Batra (15b), very serious accusations are raised against his blasphemy and cursing. At the same time, these opinions must be seen within a broader context: Iyov knows his place in relation to the Holy One. It never enters his mind that he is engaging in battle against an "equal opponent" with a chance of emerging victorious. Within the very depths of his being he may await Elihu's response, but he is conscious throughout of the fact that the Power concerned is not within his understanding.

Even nearer to the end of the Sefer, God does not provide a real answer to the questions which Iyov raises. The essence of the Divine response is "Lav ba'al devarim didi at," Iyov is not a legitimate claimant of God: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundations? Speak if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions, or who measured it with a line?" (Iyov 38:4-5). In other words, we are talking about a different dimension of reality. It is as if God is telling him, "You don't know, you don't understand. After all is said and done, you are a mortal, and are not capable of debating with Me." The very most a human being can say, in fear and trembling, is: "You will be in the right, O Lord, if I make claim against You, yet I shall [nevertheless] present charges against You" (Yirmiyahu 12:1). In short, Iyov is not - and does not perceive himself as - an equal opponent or partner for discussion with God.

Two fundamental principles are involved here. One pertains to the relationship between God and man, the other to the nature of the reality in which man lives. With regard to the first point, in the Greek perception there is no fundamental difference between man and his gods. The gods may perhaps be wiser, stronger and richer, but the difference is not a qualitative one. From this point of view, it is the humanistic outlook of Greek culture which represents both its greatness and its weakness.

Other religions which had preceded it had not perceived the gods as being in any way on a par with man. They perceived their gods as being hostile to man, laying in wait for him and threatening him. Their gods were depicted in grotesque form (as we see from their sculptures) as something inhuman and completely dissimilar from man. These philosophies highlighted the fear and terror which characterize man's relationship with his gods.

The world of the Greeks, on the other hand, displayed a considerable rapprochement between the transcendent world and that of mortals. The fear and terror which had surrounded the gods in other cultures diminished, to a large degree, and in its place came a closeness between man and his gods. Thus the Greeks largely succeeded in overcoming much of the primitive instinctual fear of the gods, attaining a position of relative peace of mind and equilibrium, a belief based on logic rather than primitive fear. Obviously, what we describe here refers to a long process. Anyone examining early Greek culture can see that it was much closer to the general pagan world. F. M. Cornford's book, "From Religion to Philosophy," which deals with the transition from Homer to Aristotle, describes both periods.

As mentioned above, this progression represented a great achievement. The Greeks perceived their existence in the world as being under the aegis of forces which could be understood and which one could deal with. This perception allowed for some of the self-assurance characterizing Greek culture, which was so distant from the primitive feelings of other pagan cultures which preceded it.

Indeed, this very point is the source of the main weakness inherent in Greek culture, when viewed from a religious standpoint. Toynbee was correct when he wrote, in his book about Greek culture, that the cardinal sin of Greek culture - from the Christian point of view - was its humanism. On one hand, this was an achievement: a culture with a profoundly humanistic basis. They held man in high esteem and viewed the world through human lenses. On the other hand, the achievement in no way diminished the problematic nature of this philosophy. Together with abandoning all the primitive feelings of fear associated with paganism, the transition to Greek humanism also did irreparable harm to the concept of holiness.

The sense of awe - not the primitive fear of the early pagans, but true religious fear, the awe associated with "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts," the God on High - this diminished and disappeared. When we see gods as humans (only slightly more sophisticated, perhaps) or as philosophical abstractions, then there is no longer any room for a sense of fear, awe or majesty.

This leads to the obliteration in Greek culture of a category which is fundamental to us: commandments. In our world, man sees himself first and foremost as someone who is commanded, as the bearer of a Divine mission, as carrying upon his shoulders a task which must be fulfilled. This conception is generally lacking in the classical Greek world of Plato and Aristotle. There certainly exists a type of religious consciousness, but religion is perceived as the aspiration to realize certain ideals rather than as obeying commands. This point is discussed by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in his "Kuzari," when he compares "the God of Abraham" to "the god of Aristotle." The distinction involves more than merely the extent of the distance between God and His followers, with "the god of Aristotle" depicted as an abstract entity with whom man can have no dialogue. There is also the question of the relationship between them: are we talking about a power to which I aspire and which I would like to reach, or is it a power with which I have some contact as a commanded servant?

As mentioned above, together with the question of the relationship between man and God there is also the question of whether man is a legitimate claimant on God or not, i.e., man's ability to comprehend events. God tells Iyov: You don't know, you'll never understand; you are simply not My "ba'al devarim" (claimant). Your lack of understanding is not the REASON for your not being My "ba'al devarim," but rather the RESULT: since you are not My "ba'al devarim," therefore you will never be able to understand. You are composed of a different substance; the infinite gap between God and man cannot be bridged. "To whom will you compare Me, that I will be similar? says the Holy One" (Yishayahu 40:25). There is no common basis. The chasm is complete. "Creator" and "creation" inhabit two completely separate worlds, and man must recognize this and accept the yoke of Divine Kingship with humility and submission.

The Greeks did not perceive things thus. They saw themselves as existing on the same plane as the higher powers, and even as "understanding" them. This "understanding" comes to expression not only in man's rational capacity (described by Rambam at the beginning of Moreh Nevukhim as part of "the image of God" in which he is created), but also in man's ability to control everything. If one can understand, one can control; and this applied not just to their perception of the gods but of the world as well. The dominant approach in Greek culture drastically diminished their sense of mystery; they saw the world as comprehensible. (Obviously, we cannot generalize - as E.M. Dodds explains in his book, "The Greeks and the Irrational.")

Two assumptions are intertwined here: A) the world - both physical and Divine - functions in a rational manner and has a logical internal structure; B) this structure may be understood by mortals.

Both points involve a certain degree of innovation. On one hand, this represents a contribution by Greek culture; on the other hand, from our point of view, this contains part of its failure. The belief that the world functions in a logical and orderly way is, after all, only a belief. Pragmatic experience does not always bear this out - certainly not at the stage at which science found itself in the pre-Greek era. An observer recognizes that there are indeed many things in the universe which appear to function according to a certain order, but at the same time no small number of phenomena seem to be devoid of any order whatsoever. The sun shines every day. This is not so with regard to wind or rain. Hence this represents a certain belief which the Greeks bequeathed to general culture. Pindar, a Greek poet of the fifth century BCE, largely reflects this perception in his statement, "Law is everything."

This concept makes life in this world easier - living in a reality which functions according to laws and an order is much easier than living in a reality which changes arbitrarily. A person who lives in a country governed by law knows, more or less, how he has to behave and what is expected of him. Whitehead addressed this contribution by the Greeks in the first chapter of his famous work, "Science and the Modern World," in which he describes the belief held by the Greeks - and which was later reinforced by Einstein's experiments - that there is indeed order to the world. This represents a scientific breakthrough: the issue was no longer one of recognizing a specific phenomenon, but rather recognition of the systematic nature of the way in which the world works.

At the same time, Greek culture also held the belief that not only is the universe orderly and organized, but that man is able to plumb its depths and understand it. This was a great incentive for scientific activity (which the Greeks albeit did not fully exploit), but at the same time clearly collides with the message arising from God's response to Iyov: "Where were you when the world was founded?" The philosophy which expresses itself in the final chapters of Sefer Iyov and in other sources is that we are not able to fully understand God, Who is revealed to us "in a thick cloud." Even Divine Revelation itself is cloaked in mystery, and contains dimensions which man is incapable of comprehending. To the extent that this feeling existed in Greek culture, it was perceived as a problem which needed to be overcome. The Greeks did not see this situation as a given but rather as a question which should - and could - be solved.

The Greek term for the universe is "cosmos," meaning "order" (from the same root as the word "cosmetic"). According to their view, the world is "ordered" and its order can be distinguished. Various tools exist to help us distinguish order in the world, including both logic and art. Art - according to Aristotle - is meant to be mimesis, a description and imitation of what exists in the world; in other words, not just the description of a certain specific person, or ox, or whatever, but a description of the universal, ideal man or ox. This process assists us in identifying the lawfulness at work in the world.

The most outstanding features of all Greek art are balance and order - not superficial order, but profound order. Proportion and harmony form part of the classical perception. The American philosopher Santayana once defined the classical approach to art as follows: "depth in the clear and fullness in the concise."

This "clarity" is vastly different from both modern art, on one hand, and romantic art on the other. The latter sees itself as extending in all directions, while classical art embodies proportion and control - balance within fixed limits. The desire to bring things within recognized limits is based on the perception that one is able to grasp both the upper and lower worlds. They sought both to comprehend the cosmos and to create within it. The Greek conception of art thus reflects their desire to assert man's control over the universe and to order it according to human standards.

The Greek attitude to history, on one hand, and to the individual, on the other, also expresses the same conception of the structure and orderliness of the world. Fundamentally, Greek culture does not focus on the historical dimension of existence. Many have written that according to our world view - which also influenced Christianity - history is a central, vital factor. This finds expression both in two ways: 1) our emphasis of historical roots - the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, etc.; 2) our viewing human existence within a historical framework with a beginning and an end, its boundaries dictated to a large extent from Above.

In the world of the Greeks, there is much greater emphasis on lawfulness which finds expression in the world; this law has no "beginning" and "end." There is no logic dictating that a certain law comes into being at a certain point in time and concludes at another. A view of nature as a phenomenon which functions according to fixed laws leads to the conclusion that there really are very few "new" things in history. "That which was, shall be." The law is the true and basic reality, and it makes no difference whether we are speaking of Pindar's perception, mentioned above, or that of Pythagoras, which pertains to the world of numbers, or of Plato's ideals whose reflections appear in the world. In all of these approaches the transient "existing" reality is of completely secondary importance. The true reality is that which is expressed in laws, and it is instantiated in our visible reality. In this kind of approach, it is much easier to understand the laws than it is to understand history itself. Once one understands the essence of Plato's ideal horse then one understands the nature of every horse in the world, and there is no need to go and look at each one of them.

This entails a certain disdain displayed towards history, in contrast to our world view, and concurrently a certain disdain for individuality. Regarding the latter, one of the most outstanding examples of the chasm between our world and the Greek world view is our attitude towards the virtue of kindness, chesed. The world of the Greeks is overflowing with admiration for the virtue of truth and adherance to it. The virtue of kindness, on the other hand, is almost completely absent. Both Greek drama and Greek ethics contain almost nothing about kindness. It finds no real expression in those values which Plato - and Cicero, in his footsteps - so admired. No special consideration is expressed for the weak or for those who are different in some way - when all is said and done, they do not embody the ideal image depicted in the law! Moreover, the concern for and interest in the individual is very weak. The most important thing is the general process, the ideal image and its realization in reality, rather than some specific individual.

The inclusion of the virtue of kindness in Western culture is attributable not to the Greeks but rather to Christianity (which adopted this idea from Judaism). In Matthew Arnold's celebrated 19th-century work, "Culture and Anarchy," there is a chapter on "Hebraism and Hellenism." I believe that Arnold failed to understand fully the Jewish outlook, and his attitude towards Hebraism reflects primarily his view of the evangelical sect of Lutheran Protestants; nevertheless, his description of the general outlines certainly does have some basis. Arnold contrasted Hellenism, characterized by logic and balance with Hebraism, characterized by passion (often joined with impetuousness) and the will to build, to act and to change. He sees the Greek world as one which sought primarily to understand; to the extent that it was creative, even this creativity was directed to a single purpose - comprehension. The issue of "perfecting the world" (tikkun olam) was not the focus of Greek consciousness. The focus was the individual man's effort to understand and to try to live an ordered and reflective life. In the absence of the historical dimension, according to which history moves "towards something," why should one labor to achieve perfection of the world? This view, reflecting less esteem for the individual, leaves one bereft of a consciousness of a mission to perfect the world, and the scope of a person's aspirations becomes necessarily limited. The prophetic dimension - even relating to false prophets - is not characteristic of the Greek perception. In none of the great creative works of classical Greece - from Aeschylus to Aristotle - are these voices dominant. There are, of course, individuals with vision - Plato is without doubt one of the greatest spirits of the Western world - but this is "vision with insight," not prophetic or messianic vision. In contrast to the dispassionate Hellenistic attitude, Arnold sees the Jewish view as yearning for deep feeling and striving for justice.

This is connected to our recognition of the dimension of mystery and the unfathomable difference between us and God. It is from here that we derive the feeling of a "God who is hiding" and of ourselves having to be commanded, where sometimes even the command itself is not completely comprehensible to us. This consciousness is what convinces us that we must conduct ourselves as "messengers of the Holy One," even without understanding everything.

Returning to the second expression of the Greek penchant for order, Greek culture contributed greatly to the world by introducing an analytic dimension into history. Before the Greeks, no one had any idea of what history was. There were "storytellers," but that was all. This characterized the early historiography of the Greeks as well. Herodotus, at the beginning of the sixth century BCE, told stories - some more reliable, others less so. Thucydides, who was the first to write a real history book, aimed at analyzing processes and events. He wrote that his purpose was not to describe the Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens but rather to provide an analysis of the might possessed by man, and of the types of opposition between states. In other words, it was neither the Spartans who interested him nor the Athenians, but rather the phenomenon qua phenomenon. He focused on the law which is concealed behind human action, and examined it against the background of a specific war. This war was to serve as a platform for philosophical debate and for the attempt to understand the relations between states at all times. We must admit that this represented an enormous contribution to historical research. However, when these laws are all that man reveals after examining history, then it has led him nowhere. This view gave rise to the Stoic approach, which held that phenomena repeat themselves in the world according to a certain pattern and regularity. This approach is understandable and logical, but does not lead its adherents towards "something."

Here we discover a huge chasm between our world view and that of the Greeks: not just a different world view, but a completely different feeling which perhaps has a certain philosophical expression. The issue is an existential one; it is something which flows in one's blood and lives in one's soul. The basic feeling which characterizes Greek culture is that of ordered existence and life in an organized world in which, if a person lives as he should, with total control, he will lead an exemplary, proper and cultured existence, with all its attendant advantages and limitations. You are not in a primitive framework, but at the same time you do not aspire to the heavens, since there really is no "heaven." There is nothing that is fundamentally different from you toward which you should aspire. There is no climax towards which history is moving. And there is no feeling of a "burning mission," of something which needs to be worked on and perfected. There is no expectation of salvation since there is no salvation. Matters simply unfold and will continue to unfold.

There can be no doubt that Greek culture contains great achievements and much content from which to draw, on several levels. The main problem of this culture (and I refer here, obviously, only to its positive manifestations) is therefore not what it contains so much as what it lacks. In the absence of certain things, even the "good" parts become problematic. They lack that feeling of mystery which arises from a perception of man's place vis-a-vis the Holy One.

The above represents just a few ideas, some of which can be further qualified. I believe that they are useful as general outlines - no more than that - both from the descriptive aspect and from the point of view of the message which they teach us.

(This shiur was delivered on the first day of Chanuka, 5748 [1987]. This summary has not been reviewed by Rav Lichtenstein.)


(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion 1997 All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!