Right before the holiday of Hanukkah comes to an end and we forget about the war between the Hellenists and the Jews, I would like to say one more word about it, since we are still fighting that war, the soldiers are us, and the result so far has been an outright defeat.
The Greek philosophy, which the Hellenists tried to impose in the land of Israel in the 2nd century BC, argues (by and large) that there is nothing wrong with humankind, and all we need is to develop. This is why the Greeks placed so much emphasis on sports and learning.
The Jewish approach said the opposite. “The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21) and “Every intent of the thoughts of his heart is only evil all day long” (Gen. 6:5) are two examples of many that show how Judaism views human nature. Why is man’s heart evil? We think only of ourselves and treat others as objects to use and abuse.
The Greek approach is the natural one; the Jewish approach is counterintuitive. However, by applying it, the Jews were able to conceive, and live by (if only briefly) social ideals that lift us above human nature, above cruelty, exploitation, and ridicule, and usher us into a realm of unity and oneness.
To understand how revolutionary the Jewish approach was at the time, think of a mother’s love for her child. She sees the world through the eyes of her child and her needs through the needs of her child. Whatever the child needs is first on her list.
Now imagine that all the people love each other as a mother loves her child, and even more, since the Israelites united “as one man with one heart” (RASHI, Commentary on the Torah). At times when the Jews maintained that oneness, they were “a light unto nations” (Isaiah 42:6). That was the wisdom that Ptolemy II, king of Egypt, sought to acquire from the Jews when he summoned seventy Hebrew sages to his palace in Alexandria to translate Jewish Law into Greek.
Prior to translating, the king sat with the sages for two whole weeks and asked them every question he could think of concerning governance and society. When he was satisfied with their answers, he sent them to translate, not before he said that now “he had learned how he ought to rule his subjects” (Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII).
When Jews began to abandon their noble ideas of society and embrace Greek values, the clash of civilizations intensified and eventually erupted into civil war. At that time the Hasmoneans, champions of the Hebraic approach, won the war and drove out the Hellenists. Today, the Greeks are the winners and the losers are all of humanity and the entire planet.
Wittingly or unwittingly, we will have to fight the Hellenists within us. The self-centered approach that the world has so readily embraced has depleted our resources and destroyed human society. If we persist with it, it will plunge us into a third world war. It is better to fight against our egos than to face nuclear weapons.
So before the holiday ends, we must remember, for our own sake, that Hanukkah is not about dreidels and sufganiyot (Hanukkah doughnuts). It is an inner war that we must wage against ourselves.
Within each of us there are Greeks and Hasmoneans. In each of us, the ego wants to rule, and today we see that if the ego wins, we all lose. We have no choice but to side with the Hasmoneans and choose unity and mutual responsibility over division and alienation.
Picture by: Ariel Palmon