The Coming of the Greeks

Greek culture would tempt Jews like no other, threatening to destroy Judaism. It would be as much an exile of mind as of the body.

Jewish history does not happen in a vacuum.

Jews may play a disproportionate role in world history,[1] but that role must be understood against the backdrop of the history of the entire world. In a deeper sense, God’s hidden hand becomes visible in the behavior of the world toward the Jews.

How Jews react to that hand is very much a part of the overall plan.

The rise and spread of Greek civilization affected the course of the non-Jewish world as perhaps no other historical force. Greek culture and philosophy formed the foundation for much of what today is known as Western civilization. The arrival of the Greeks as a prominent power in the Mediterranean basin greatly affected the Jewish settlement in Israel as well.

More overwhelming than the political or military threat which the Greeks posed was the spiritual threat. Jewish allegiance to the Torah was challenged as at no other time. Greek values often clashed with the Jewish ideal, and, therefore, the infiltration of Greek culture and ideas set the stage for one of the most intriguing chapters in Jewish history.

The #1 Rule about Assimilation

For Jews today, more immediate than the historical events of this period is the establishment of a pattern for Jewish assimilation, a historical pattern which remains applicable to the Jewish people throughout the ages.

The essence of the idea is this: Jews never attempt to assimilate into an inferior culture.

The pressure for assimilation always exists and is strong when there is what the Jews consider an equal or superior culture involved. Therefore, the Jews did not assimilate in Babylon because they viewed it as an inferior culture. There was no temptation. Similarly, the Jews were never really interested in being Persians. The Jew in Eastern Europe did not want to be the Polish peasant. He did not want to be the Russian serf.

However, the Jew who lived in Germany wanted to be Schiller or Goethe or Frederick the Great. There was an attraction, because the Jews considered it an advanced culture.

The first major assimilatory threat to the Jewish people was Greek culture. For the first time, the Jews not only encountered a culture that provided an alternative, but, on the surface at least, provided a superior culture. That is why there grew such a great and strong Hellenistic movement within the Jewish people.

Greek Philosophy

Probably the most famous aspect of that culture is Greek philosophy.

It is an oversimplification, but the purpose of philosophy is to try to explain life logically. As such, it is like sleeping in a bed with a blanket that is a little too short. Something is always sticking out. There has never been a philosophy that answers all the questions.

In our time, the value of philosophy has declined. We are more interested in technology; in the how rather than the why. We send our children to advanced schools of education where they will not be required to think about the nature of life or the world. They are only required to think, “How do you build a better computer?” “How do you make more money?” “How do you design a more obsolete car?”

The idea of sitting for 30 years and contemplating the nature of life is not very appealing in our time. Yet, for thousands of years in the Western world that was the ultimate job. A philosopher held an especially high place in the ancient world.

Where did philosophy begin? Jewish tradition says it began with King Solomon. Many wise men from Athens came to him to test his wisdom, and it was he who got them started on these ideas.

We can perhaps understand this better by studying Solomon’s, Ecclesiastes, which is the first book of philosophy. It takes all the other philosophies at the time – e.g. Hedonism, Fatalism and even what later on would be called Epicureanism – and draws them out to their ultimate illogical conclusion. Solomon examines all the possible philosophical answers that exist in the world and does away with each of them: why this does not work and why that does not work. In effect, he shows you where the blanket is too short. Even the best philosophies.

Solomon plays the devil’s advocate for every philosophical theory. He describes it, and sometimes even seems to indulge in it, but eventually pulls back and points out its fatal flaw. After all is heard, he concludes, the attempts to arrive at a unified philosophy to explain all of life logically is vain and empty.

By extension that naturally leads to the necessity of faith and belief in an Infinite Being whose ways are ultimately beyond the grasp of mere mortals possessed of finite minds.

In the Jewish viewpoint, philosophy is really just an adjunct of Torah. Even though it started its course in Western civilization under Jewish auspices, the Jewish people never really developed it. It was given away to “the wise men of Athens.” The Greeks absorbed Solomon’s methodology and spirit of inquiry, took it back with them to Greece and developed it in their own ways.[2]

In ancient Greece, the philosopher was the most respected member of the community — and the most dangerous. That is why Socrates was put to death. Today, there would be no reason to put Socrates to death. He would not be much of a threat. However, in the Greek world, a philosopher was held in such esteem that he was the single most subversive member of society if he wished to be. He alone could undermine the government.

The Burden of Conscience and the Greeks

The Greeks also developed most advanced system of paganism in the world. Anyone who has ever read Greek mythology understands what happened. They took all of the bad habits of human beings and gave them to the gods. Instead of humans behaving like God, as the Torah demands (Deuteronomy 28:9), they had the gods behaving like humans.

There was a method to that madness, because it absolved people of responsibility for their sins. If the gods themselves lied, cheated, committed adultery and stole – if they did everything ungodly – they why should mere mortals be expected to act better? Therefore, the ancient Greeks never had the burden of conscience — which not only did the Jewish people have, but even the early pagans had.

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” is attributed to the Epicureans, a well-known group of Greek philosophers. It is an oversimplification, but that represented the Greek idea.

We may think that our society is the same; however we still has the conscience of the Puritans hanging over it, and, therefore, the more we eat, drink, and be merry the more frightened we are that tomorrow we die. That dissonance goes a long way in explaining a great deal of the reason for our society’s mental illness problems. Even though we behave in an unprincipled fashion, deep down there is enough of a conscience left over from Christianity and the Western world’s system of morality that prevents us from really enjoying ourselves.

The Greeks had none of those hang-ups. And that is one reason why it was a very appealing philosophy and way of life.

Greek Beauty

The Greeks exalted the human body, and in so doing removed all barriers to nudity and sexual behavior. They made aesthetics not just an art form but a form of worship. Anyone who has seen the ruins of the Parthenon gets a glimpse how magnificent Greek architecture was. Indeed, the Greeks developed mathematics because in their engineering for improved architecture they figured out new forms. They made the temples and the buildings of all other cultures look puny and ugly in comparison.

The Greeks developed music and of dance. They developed musical instruments and played their music with abandon, often to the accompaniment of ecstatic and/or orgiastic dance.

The Greeks wrote epic poems and plays. The epic poems of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, even today form the basis of Western civilization’s literature. The ability to tell a story, to make it rhyme, had a tremendous appeal. Especially to the Jewish people, who were intelligent, literate, super-critical, and constantly looking for something. The nature of the Jew is always to be dissatisfied, to have a soul on fire burning for something more than the world has to offer; a soul ever-thirsting for fulfillment and transcendence.

The Beauty and the Beast

For all these reasons, when the Greeks burst on the horizon the Jews were very receptive. And in that lay the great danger for the complete destruction of the edifice of the Judaism, the basic ideas and value systems, the observance of the commandments, the study of Torah, etc.

While many Jews would succumb to the influence others would withstand the test. They would come to see Greek enlightenment as darkness, and to realize that what seemed beautiful on the outside was really only skin deep. Beneath the surface was just another frightening predatory beast (Daniel 7:6).

The Greek exile began on a high note. That made it even more of a test, more of a temptation. After the initial euphoria, the Jews found themselves in a clash of cultures; in a world of outer and inner conflict, sometimes with Greeks and other non-Jewish elements, and sometimes with fellow Jews.

The Greek exile would prove different than every other exile Jewish exile. Indeed, it would be an exile while the Jews still lived in their own land. It would be as much an exile of mind as of the body. It would test Jewish resolve like never before, and force the Jewish people to choose between complete disintegration and digging deep into themselves to find an inner enlightenment no Greek poetry or beauty could ever possibly to tap.

[1] See, for example, Mark Twain: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (Mark Twain in “Concerning the Jews”)

[2] In Toras Ha’Olah (1:11:4 – authored by Rabbi Moses Isserles, the “Ramah,” the great 16th century leader of world Jewry) it is written: “For in truth, all the wisdom of the philosophers and researchers came from Israel, and all of their wisdom is encompassed in the Torah, as the Rabbi of the “Guide [for the Perplexed,” i.e. Maimonides] taught at length (1:71)…. The wisdom of Aristotle was stolen from King Solomon, for when Alexander the Macedonian conquered Jerusalem he set his teacher Aristotle to govern over the collection of the books of Solomon. And every good thing he found in them he copied and intermixed in them some his own mistaken ideas, such as the Antiquity of the World and the denial of Providence….”

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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