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What is the Conflict Between the Greeks and Israel?

Friday, 11 December, 2015 - 1:48 pm

Hyman went to his doctor for the results of lab tests from a full check-up. His doctor said he was doing "fairly well" for his age.

Hyman was obviously a little concerned about that. "Doctor, do you think I'll live to be 80?"
The doctor asked, "Do you smoke or drink beer?"
"Oh no", Hyman replied, "I've never done either."
"Do you eat grilled steaks or barbecued ribs?"

"No," replied Hyman. "I've heard that red meat is very unhealthy."
"Do you spend a lot of time in the sun, playing golf or doing something similar?" asked the doctor.
"No I don't," Hyman said.
"Do you gamble or drive fast cars?"
"No, I've done none of those things."
The doctor looked at Hyman and said, "Then why do you want to live to be 80?"

The festival of Hanukah commemorates the extraordinary victory of the Maccabees, a small but dedicated force of fighters, against one of the greatest imperial powers, the Seleucid branch of the Alexandrian empire, 2100 years ago.

This story takes us back to 164 BCE, some 150 years before the birth of Christianity and two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. Antiochus the 4th ascended the throne determined to impose his values on the Jewish people. He forbade the practice of Judaism, set up a statue of Zeus in the Temple, and systematically desecrated Jerusalem's holy sites. Jews caught practicing Judaism were tortured to death. Sadly, he was helped in this endeavor by two Jewish high priests, Jason and Menelaus, who assisted him in banning the Jewish lifestyle and turning the Temple into an interdenominational house of worship.

To put it into historical perspective, had Antiochus succeeded, Judaism would have died.

A small group of Jews, led by the elderly priest Mattathias and his sons, rose in revolt. They fought a brilliant campaign, and within three years they had recaptured Jerusalem, removed sacrilegious objects from the Temple, and restored Jewish autonomy. As the Hanukah prayers say, it was a victory for "the weak against the strong, and the few against the many." Religious liberty was established and the Temple was rededicated. Hanukah means "rededication."

We, the Jewish people, are here today only because of the courage and vision of this small group of determined Jews who would not allow their G-d and Torah to be reduced to the dustbins of history by the Syrian-Greek tyrant.

Yet astonishingly, the Talmud gives us a very different perspective of the Hanukah festival: 
“When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all its oil. When the royal Hasmonean family...was victorious over them, they searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest—enough to light the menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year, they established these [eight days] as days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving for G-d.”

This is strange. The miracle of the oil, it would seem, was of minor significance compared to the military victory.

If the Jews had been defeated by the Greeks, there would be no Jews today; the menorah would not have been kindled.

Rabbi Yehuda Loew (1512-1607), known as the Maharal, the chief Rabbi of Prague, explains the nature of the conflict between the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks were a very enlightened culture in many ways. They professed a love for science and logic; they created systems of logical thinking; they were passionate about philosophy, biology, and math; and they developed literature, art, architecture, sports, and athleticism. The Greeks emphasized the power of reason and the importance of individual conscience. This was why they Hellenized so many Jews. The Greeks had a deep appeal for the Jews—who in our own way are students of logic and science and have a very enlightened culture of our own. The Greek contributions to civilization, philosophy, art and architecture were profound, and the Jews were taken by it.

Yet there was a contrast between Judaism and Greek wisdom: 
For the Greeks, the ultimate objective was to discover the laws of nature, the science of the universe, the systems of the planets, the composition of the human body, the dynamics of existence. For the Jew, the objective was to discover theCreator behind all of nature. Judaism wants us to understand the world around us in order to discover the transcendence of existence, to find the presence of G-d.

The Greeks took the existence of the world for granted. Their entire focus was thus on the properties of existence. 
The Jews didn’t take existence for granted. They asked the questions not only a about the properties of existence, but about the origin, meaning, purpose and precedent to existence. Their focus was on that which preceded existence and which brought existence into being. They fell in love not just with creation, but with the Creator.

The Greeks took for granted that the law dictates the world “to be.” Their question was, what type of “be-ing” is this? For the Jews, the natural state was “not to be.” Our question is, why and how did we get from not-being to being
Thus, the Jews and Greeks lived in two absolutely different worlds: the Greeks—in a world of nature; the Jews—in a Divine world of One who creates and sustains and changes nature.

The same Greeks who so glorified wisdom and logic were in some ways also very sadistic. There were many barbaric daily practices in the Hellenist culture—infanticide, pedophilia, pederasty. Aristotle himself, the teacher of Alexander the Great and the greatest Greek philosopher, argued in his Politics (VII.16) that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote: "There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed."

Now we will understand the need for the oil miracle. Says the Maharal: Had the oil miracle not happened, people might have attributed the military victory to the workings of nature alone. Sometimes the few do win against the many; sometimes a David defeats a Goliath. 
But where does G-d come into the picture? Courage and military strategy produce victory. The Maccabees fought a brilliant guerilla war and they won! Why attribute it to G-d? This was the need for the oil miracle: There was the need for an event—even a small and insignificant one—for which there could be no “natural” scientific explanation. This demonstrated that though the Maccabees were brave and brilliant, it was the Creator of the world who conferred victory upon them.

Had the oil miracle not happened, the military victory would have been attributed to caprice, and it would have indeed been a victory of Greek philosophy! The Maccabees might have won the battle but they would have lost the war. With the oil miracle, they won the battle and the war of ideas.

There is something deeper involved. By making light the central feature of Chanukah, the sages teach us Judaism's essence: its ambition to cast light on the universe and, just like light, show us the TRUE NATURE of all of existence.

The following occurred with the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Eliezer Spiro, in Bergen Belsen on Chanukah during the Holocaust:

Chanukah eve had been particularly grim in the camp. Many Jews had been randomly taken out and shot. The bodies were still lying on the ground as the day ended. The Jews that remained got together, found an old shoe, made some oil out of shoe polish, made a wick out of threads from a garment, and wanted to light a Chanukah candle.

The Rebbe, being the “spiritual leader” in the camp, proceeded to light the Chanukah candle and recite the appropriate blessings. He recited the first blessing " kindle the Chanukah candle." He made the second blessing "...who has done miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time."

Before saying the third blessing, the she'hechiyanu ("... who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this occasion"), he hesitated. He looked around, and then made the blessing. 
One Jew who witnessed this later asked the Rebbe bitterly, "Rabbi Spira, I understand how you said the first blessing, and I even understand how you said the second blessing about miracles in the days of old. But tell me, in this terrible place with dead Jews lying around us, how can you say the blessing thanking G-d for keeping us alive and bringing us to this time?"

The Rebbe looked at the Jew and said, "You know, I had the same question. That is why I hesitated before the third blessing. But then I looked around and saw Jews in the worst of circumstances around me, surrounded by destruction and death, yet they insisted on fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles even in these horrible conditions. I said to myself, for this alone one can and should make the blessing."


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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