Defeating Hellenistic Enlightenment


By Rabbi Ariel Yeshurun

Greece and its Hellenistic culture dominated the minds and captivated the hearts of millions. Their new ideas agitated the establishment and swept the masses. Their philosophies redefined the parameters of knowledge, challenged a millennia of conventions, and shattered myths. In their great quest for wisdom, the Greeks relentlessly probed and pondered the subtleties and complexities of the human intellect. They meticulously poured over volumes of ancient texts in their pursuit for answers to some of life’s most complicated enigmas and mysteries, effectively creating and instituting the foundation of science and scientific analysis.

So why was Greek enlightenment such a threat to Judaism? Why were these cultivated people and their culture excommunicated? What was so wrong and reprehensible, so overwhelmingly negative and inherently fallacious about their desire to understand the universe? Why does Judaism perceive Greek academic ambition in literature, mathematics, music, the arts, and general sciences to be an iniquitous conquest?

Did the Greeks not achieve such imaginative feats in engineering and architecture as the great Acropolis, an inspiringly sophisticated edifice towering magnificently over Athens? How about their heritage of legendary philosophers, theoreticians and scholars, with giants like Socrates and his disciple Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras?

Have not the stories told in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey been long embedded in Western culture that they are inescapable even to this day, from the Trojan horse to the Cyclops, from Achilles’ heel to the Sirens’ songs, elements of which remain mainstays of our literature and everyday language nearly 3,000 years after they were written?

Judaism uses the allure of nature to turn the cosmos into one piece of godliness.

And what of Eratosthenes? Should we not pay homage to the Greek chief librarian of Alexandria, who devised an ingenious way to measure the earth’s size, and for gifting us modern concepts such as longitude, latitude, musical scales and prime numbers? And of Alexandria herself, founded by Alexander the Great after conquering Egypt, can we ignore this metropolitan of wisdom housing within its walls a colossal library archiving invaluable knowledge of many civilizations from the ancient world?

And what about the Greeks’ groundbreaking approach to governing and legislature, their understanding of the need to foster dialogue and debate and their appreciation for the necessity to discuss all matters in a liberated, egalitarian manner? Are we not eternally indebted to the indelible mark they have left by painstakingly sowing the seeds, so beautifully articulating the mantra and so courageously trailblazing the path in the mighty waters of our struggles for democracy, the pursuit of happiness and the right for self-determination?


Could we be so foolish as to pay no heed, and dismiss the founder of the Hellenistic movement which was the protégé of Alexander’s monumental intellectual exploitations? Unlike his father King Phillip II, who conquered but vanquished existing civilizations, massacring their culture and slaughtering their genealogical wisdom, Alexander, in his ambitious conquering odyssey and zealous crusade through Greece, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and the Persian Empire, absorbed civilizations rather than abolish them, subsumed rather than decimate. He respected their lineage of customs and cultures, annexed their cerebral heritage and honored the integrity of their sages ultimately becoming the patrimonial champion of an emerging new, hybrid culture known as Hellenism.

Yet it seems that on Hanukkah, Judaism celebrates the triumphant defeat of this intelligent pioneering and enterprising society…or does it?

The answer is quite simple.

Judaism is not oblivious to the legendary contributions the Greeks made, and it does not fail to see their iconic strides and progressive legacy. As a matter of fact, Judaism not only acknowledges the epic intellectual saga of the Greeks, but in many ways subscribes to it!

The striking difference is that Judaism, unlike Hellenism, understands the beauty embedded in the complexity of life as a reflection of the Creator and His omnipotent abilities. Through scientific discoveries, Judaism seeks to reveal G-d in the world and expose His supreme control over it. Judaism uses the allure of nature to turn the cosmos into one piece of godliness. Judaism debates and deliberates the fundamentals of conscious. The Rabbis labor to understand good and evil. The Greeks, on the other hand, through their new found genius, turned man into a god, praised his unmatched abilities and superiority, admired his power to wield nature to his will and worshiped his physical properties, conclusively crowning him with arrogant dominion over the universe. Judaism yields humility and a sense of awe and gratitude for the gifts endowed by G-d; Hellenism produces presumptuousness and imperiousness.

While Hellenism studied when and how the world was created, when they pursued the mechanics of nature and the laws that so meticulously govern it, Judaism was preoccupied with who created it and why. Judaism asks questions of purpose. Judaism starts where Hellenism last left off! After the Greeks and the presocratics labored to discern and distinguish between appearance and reality, firmly establishing the true building blocks of the world, the Jews, through the Torah, proposed ethics and demanded accountability from man.

Judaism deals with the purposeful properties of existence, while Hellenism deals with the physical properties of existence. Judaism speaks of the vulnerability of man, of him being driven by forces which allow him to succumb to his destructive inclinations and of the critical need for him to control his desires, rule over his urges and decree standards through which he can grow and refine his character. Hellenism is aimed at establishing man by virtue of his intellect and higher cognitive functions as an infallible being, and threatens to undermine his need to command the means at his disposal which are so necessary in order to embolden his emotional capacity to exercise restraint and resolve.

The Rabbis saw how effectively and resourcefully Hellenism advocated for enthroning man and declaring his intelligence, physical strength and shrewd manipulation of nature to his advantage—absolute.

With the power of spirit over spear, with a band of inexperienced villager warriors, and with a bit of light from a tiny flask of oil, the Maccabees defeated the formidable army of the Syrian-Greeks and decisively dispelled that notion. This, my dear readers, is what the joy and jubilation on Hanukkah is all about!

Wishing you and your loved ones a Chag Urim same’ach!