Chanukkah, Greece and Democracy

5769 / 2008

Sarah Yehudit Schneider

There is no person or nation that does not have at least a miniscule sliver of holiness. Otherwise it could not exist. Life is a priori evidence of the presence of G-d. And if G-d is present then there is also at least a miniscule sliver of truth for the Talmud declares: “HaShem’s signature is truth.”1 And so the Midrash concurs:

“If a person asserts that there is wisdom among the nations, believe them. Yet, if he contends that there is Torah among the nations, this you must not believe.” (Lam. Raba 2:3)

The difference between wisdom and Torah is as follows:2 Wisdom is the isolated truth. Torah is the unified field. Wisdom is a piece of the picture, Torah is its context.  Wisdom is the truth of an I-center looking out into the world from its own perspective.  Torah is the composite of all the I-centers in the universe.  Torah shows how each wisdom fits into the larger system of knowledge. It reveals the counter-truth that tempers each insight and turns it into a paradox.

Sod Yesharim observes that when a person has wisdom and not Torah he inevitably turns his holy truth into an idol when he asserts it as an absolute.3 His window on the world, as profound as it may be, is still a single I-center, subject to the blind-spots that are always present when there is no larger context to counterbalance its assertions.

Sod Yesharim, basing himself on the Zohar,4 states that of all the wisdoms of the world, classic Greek metaphysics is the closest to Torah.3 The Maccabean Chanukha war was actually a battle between the world’s greatest wisdom (Greek ideology) and the world’s greatest revelation (the holy Torah). It was a war of assimilation, says R. Tsadok, with each side seeking to absorb the other into its frame.5 And it continues today.

Tsadok explains that every one of the nations that conquered Israel had a special light (and wisdom). The whole point of the exile was for the Jewish people to absorb whatever was redeemable about that nation, and to stubbornly resist all else. This struggle to fulfill their paradoxical mission, forced the Jewish people to acquire a new set of strengths that enabled them to resist the imperialistic ambitions of that particular empire.

Greek civilization has an ambiguous status in Judaism. It was the third exile6 (332-168 BCE), but is considered to be still flourishing as the “brains” of our current, Roman exile (the fourth and final of them).7 Yavan, the Hebrew term for Greece, is named after a descendent of Noach’s third son, Yefet (a name that means literally, beauty), while the Jewish people descend from Noach’s first son, Shem. When Noach blessed his sons before his death, he gave Yefet the following blessings:

May God expand Yefet, and dwell in the tents of Shem. (Gen. 9:27)

Chiya bar Abba interpreted this verse to mean: The beauty of Yefet [i.e., Greece] should dwell in the tents of Shem. (TB Megilla 9b)

Rashi elaborates: The “beauty of Yefet” is the Greek language.

The essence of a people is revealed through the elemental forms that comprise its alphabet, the symbols it employs to express its wisdom. The Talmud accords the greatest honor possible to the ancient Greek script, and by extension, to the civilization that spawned that language:

A Sefer Torah may be written in only one language [other than Hebrew, the holy tongue], and that is Greek. (TB Megilla 8b)8

The rise of Greek culture revolutionized the western world. Art, theatre, logic and philosophy flourished.  True to its namesake, the Greeks made beauty a science. They invented geometry and mathematical proofs. They promoted the concept of ideal forms as the inner, hidden essence of reality, more real in fact, than the world of changing appearances that we encounter through our senses. The ultimate expression of Greek beauty was in the world of ideas.9

Their wisdom was awesome, but without Torah, it assumed idolatrous proportions. For example, logic is great and exquisitely beautiful, but it is not an absolute. Greek philosophers exalted the notion of binary logic: If a b, then if x = a, x b.10 Yet, at exactly this historical moment, in (unconscious) reaction to the hegemony of Greek logic, there appeared within the Jewish nation the phenomenon of zugot, pairs of rabbis who held polar opposite positions on nearly all matters.11 Binary logic insists that only one of these disputants can be right on any given issue. Yet, the idolization of pure logic pressed out of the Jewish people the superrational mystery of paradox, which contends that: “The arguments of rabbi A, and the arguments of rabbi B, though mutually exclusive, are both words of the living G-d”—their contradictory assertions are both true.12 The world of paradox defies binary logic and proclaims an infinitely more sophisticated notion of truth. The survival instinct of the Jewish people and their aversion to idolatry awakened this spiritual rebellion from the inside out.

Another icon of the western world whose roots trace back to ancient Greece, is democracy. This sharing of political power triggered a major paradigm shift in social organization. For the first time, in the history of nation-states, there was a governmental model that honored the intrinsic worth of every human being…as long as he was Greek and male and a freeman, that is. Despite this major drawback, it was a step in the right direction, and it initiated the democratic revolution that is still sweeping the world today.

Now the democratic model is not foreign to Judaism.  According to R. Tsadok, Moshe’s original aim was to create an egalitarian society where power and authority would be shared by all.13  His action plan was to train the entire camp of Israelites to become experts in Torah law and proficient in discerning God’s will.  It took an outsider, Moshe’s non-Jewish father-in-law, Yitro, to design the system of hierarchy, the pyramid of command and authority that Moshe reluctantly accepted as a pragmatic necessity. (Ex. 18:13-27)

But Moshe’s original plan will prevail, for the messianic golden age will be exactly that, a world whose social-organization is circular as opposed to hierarchical.14 And similarly there are teachings by the Gra (as presented by his student R. Hillel) indicating that one of the seven preconditions to redemption is the realization of social equality.15

But still, democracy is not an absolute. It too has its parameters just like every other created thing. And the state of Israel, the only full democracy in the Middle East with universal suffrage, is faced with the unenviable task of hammering out exactly what those parameters might be. For you see, there is an enormous crisis brewing in the Holyland. Statisticians predict that if its demographic trends continue at current rates, Jews will comprise less than 50% of the population in thirty to fifty years. At that point, the democratic principle of one-person, one-vote, will turn Israel into another Arab republic in the vast swathe of Muslim nations that comprise the Middle East.

There are those who might respond: “Well that is the price you pay for democracy.  You might get voted out of power.” But there are others who respond that there is another value that is equally uncompromisable (if not more so) and that is the Jewish character of the state of Israel, the sliver of ground that is a homeland for the Jewish people.

And so the Maccabean revolt against Greek dominion continues today, and the question remains: Who will assimilate whom. Either Israel must find a higher order model of government, beyond democracy, that integrates populist principles with its commitment to Jewish sovereignty, thereby absorbing the Hellenistic spark of democracy into its, larger, Torah-centered frame.  Or, democracy swallows up Israel, and the Jewish people revert back to holy nomads subject to the fickle whims of their unpredictable hosts.

Let Noach’s blessing be fulfilled. Let all the holy sparks of wisdom find their place inside Torah. Let Yefet’s beauty dwell (happily, comfortably and willingly) inside the tents of Shem. And as our Chanukha lights shine out into the dark unknown may Your holy lights guide our way16 as we negotiate the prolific (and treacherous) challenges of these auspicious times.



1 TB Shabbat 55a.2 As the terms are used in this midrash.

3 R. Gershon Chanokh Lainer, Sod Yesharim al HaTorah: Tinyana, Chanukha 5639.

4 Zohar Chadash, Yitro, 44b; Zohar 2:237a; Zohar 2: 203b.

5 R. Tsadok HaKohen, Resisei Laila, ot 57. Also see: Werblowsky and Wigoder, The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (Masada Press, 1966) under Hellenism: ”After the Maccabean victory, Palestinian Jewry was strong enough to absorb Greek influences without danger of being engulfed by Hellenism as such…The historical significance of He Hellenistic Period resides in its being a paradigmatic instance of the capacity of Judaism to enrich, without losing itself by contact with a “universal civilization.”

6 Jewish historians label the period during which the events of Chanukah occurred as the “Greek exile.” In the literal sense, however, no exile ever took place — not one Jew was banished from the Land of Israel! It was a conquest of ideology.

7 TB Megila 6b. Also see Handbook of Philosophy, Barnes and Noble, Inc, p38. “Then Rome conquered the world politically, at the same time yielding spiritually to Greek intellect.”

8 Rambam, Hilchot Tefilin and Sefer Torah 1:19. From Rambam’s commentary on the Mishna, Megillah 1:8, 2:1, it appears that a Greek Torah scroll was not a transliteration of Hebrew into Greek, but rather an actual translation.

9 R.S.R. Hirsh on Gen 9:27.

10 Restated in simple English: If a does not equal b, then if x equals a, it cannot also equal b.

11 Name given to each of five pairs of scholars representing five generations of leading exponents of Oral Law spanning the period between the Maccabean revolt and the time of Herod.  The pairs held the office of president (nasi) and vice-president (av bet din).  Hillel and Shammai are the most famous, but Yose and Yose were the first ones that arose in the Maccabean period. Some scholars suggest that each member of the pair represented either the plebeian or patrician party on a bipartisan basis.

12 TB Eruvin 13b.

13 R. Tsadok HaKohen, Tikanat HaShavin 6:53, Tsidkat HaTsadik 231, Pri TsadikParshat Korach.

14 R. K. K. Epstein, Meor vShemesh, parshat Bshalach, Miriam’s circle Dance.  Translated in Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine, Sarah Yehudit Schneider, p 193-224.

15 R. Hillel of Shklov, Kol HaTur, 1994. p. 104 (see also p. 34 and 58).

16 Psalms 119:105.

Recommended Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search