Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Miketz – Chanukah (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “The Lord shall broaden and beautify Yefet, and he (or perhaps ”He”) shall dwell in the Tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).
The Chanukah struggle was between two powerful ideologies, Judaism vs. Hellenism, Jerusalem vs. Athens, a band of Maccabee traditionalist rebels who waged war (at first a Civil War against the leadership-establishment High Priest Menelaus and then against a broader contingent which included Greek-Syria) to prevent the Holy City Jerusalem from becoming a Greek city-state (polis), hosting idolatrous Olympic games as well as Dionysian, orgiastic celebrations.
But the roots and results of Hellenism were much more profound than their mythological idols and hedonistic orgies. Yavan, (Ion, Greece), son of Yefet and grandson of Noah, bequeathed to world history the philosophy of Pluto and Aristotle, the dramatic literature of Sophocles and Euripides, the mathematics of Euclid and Pythagoras, the sculpture of Praxiteles, the epic poetry of Homer. If indeed Western Civilization is the result of the two great cultures of Greco-Rome and Judeo-Christianity, and if our Bible is the fount of ethical wisdom and humane morality, then it was Greece who pioneered structured philosophic discourse, mathematics as the language of science, and the esthetics of art, music and drama, which are all so significant in the modern world.
To be sure, there is a fundamental tension between the two world-views of Judaism and Hellenism. Whereas for us the God of love, compassion and truth stands at the center of the Universe; the human being created in the Divine image, must strive for morality and sanctity, for Athens the human being, embodiment of perfection, is “the measure of all things.” The gods are created in his image, and he must strive to be brave, courageous and contemplative.
On Chanukah, the two ideologies clashed and we emerged triumphant; but is there room for a synthesis, even dialectic, between the two? Can the soul of Jerusalem be garbed in the cloak of Athens much like Mother Rebecca linked the voice of Jacob to the external trappings of Esau?
Our question depends on how we read the verse cited in the introduction to this article. One approach is, “The Lord shall broaden and beautify Yefet, and he (Yefet, the glories of Greek culture) shall dwell in the tents of Shem,” in sacred synthesis or dialectic.
Another approach dictates that we must guard against the anthropocentric and hedonistic Yefet who will try to shatter and overwhelm the fundamentally frail boundaries and ramparts of Shem – “The Lord shall broaden and beautify Yefet, but He, God, can only dwell in the tents of Shem” (Rashi, ad loc Gen. 9:27)!?
I believe the answer to our query is to be found in a fascinating incident recorded in the Talmud (B.T. Bava Kamma 82b). Two brothers; descendants of the Hasmonean dynasty were fighting one another in a civil war, not long after the victory of the Maccabees. One brother and his troops were positioned within the Holy City of Jerusalem, and the other with the help of Roman legions were camped outside the city walls. Despite their conflict, they continued to cooperate on one project. Every day, coins were sent over the wall in a basket by one brother and animals were purchased and hoisted over the wall by the other, so that the daily sacrificial offerings of the Temple would not be interrupted.
Using what the Talmud calls the language of “Greek wisdom”, an elderly man from inside the city suggested to the enemy on the outside that as long as the sacrificial rite continued unabated, the brother on the outside would never conquer Jerusalem. The next day, when the coins for the purchase of sacrifices arrived, instead of sending bullocks for the sacrifices, they hoisted a pig, and when the pig’s hoofs touched the ramparts of Jerusalem, the Holy City was convulsed with an earthquake. The story concludes, “The Sages then decreed, “Cursed be the individual who raises pigs, and cursed be the father who teaches his son Greek wisdom.’”
After the Chanukah experience and its aftershocks, one would have thought that Greek wisdom – Greek philosophy, Greek literature and Greek art, if not Greek science and Greek mathematics – would have been banned as a result of this Talmudic decree. But this was not the case. The Talmud goes on (B.T. Bava Kamma 83a) to praise the Greek language and interprets “Greek wisdom” as a skill necessary for international political discourse.
In fact, a parallel account at the end of Babylonian Tractate Sotah defines “Greek wisdom” as a special language of nuance and riddle used by politicians especially for the purpose of espionage, which is how Maimonides understands the Talmudic decree. He adds that there is no contemporary application to the ban, since that particular language has completely disappeared from usage.
Even later responsa (see for example Rivash, Rav Yitzhak bar Sheshet, Responsum 45) agrees with Maimonides’ interpretation of “Greek wisdom” in the context of the ban. To be sure, he argues that philosophical tracts committed to the extirpation of Jewish theological principles are to be avoided, and even suggests that Maimonides and Gersonides may have been led astray by Greek philosophy; nevertheless, normative Judaism never codified a prohibition of studying Greek wisdom.
Apparently despite the danger, the Jewish ideal remains incorporating the “beauty of Yefet within the tents of Shem.”