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The Darkness that was Greece

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky

The world of Greece was defined by beauty and philosophy, which many Jews admired. Yet in the end, there had to be a fight to the finish between the two ways of life. Why?

When explaining the deeper meanings of the Torah's account of creation, our Sages have written that the nihilistic forces of tohu, vohu, choshech and tehom -- "void, formlessness, darkness, and abyss" -- are manifest in four nations that have risen to rule the world: Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Greece is equated with darkness.

This is puzzling. Although we recognize the many faults and shortcomings that lie beneath the civilized veneer of Greece, it would seem that Greece was a spark of light rather than a shroud of darkness when compared to the swamp of idolatry and ignorance that preceded it. Was it not Greek thought that planted the seeds of reason that ultimately displaced polytheism in modern society?


There was a long period in Jewish history - from Rabbeinu Sa'adiah Gaon, 10th century, through the Rishonim , and up until the Remak and the Ari, 16th century -- when the main thrust of religious thought was based on philosophy. Although the conclusions of the rabbis' reasoning were certainly different from those of Greek philosophers, their terminology and approach were definitely based on philosophy.

The great Maimonides stated: "In all matters sub-metaphysical Aristotle is correct," and, "Aristotle almost reached the rank of prophet."

The justification for this approach lies in the interpretation the Sages give to the verse in Genesis 9:27 that "the beauty of Yefet will dwell in the tent of Shem," inferring that the beauty of Yefet (i.e., Greece) has a definite place in the tents of Shem (i.e., Israel).

But elsewhere one is forbidden to engage in chachmat Yevanit , "Greek wisdom," under the penalty of loss of one's share in the World to Come. So how can we reconcile these two views? A complete answer would fill many tomes, encompassing scores of different interpretations. This chapter is focusing on just one of the many aspects of this question.

To understand this, we must differentiate between two different aspects of philosophy:

  • a disciplined thought system, used to explain and categorize events, and
  • a way of life and parameter of existence.

The first aspect is that which is included in the "beauty of Yefet," which one may bring into the tents of Shem. It is one of the "seventy facets of Torah" and was employed by Maimonides and many other teachers as a method of expounding the Torah.


Yet there is another aspect of philosophy - one that is normative rather than descriptive. It rests on the axiom: "Nothing exists that cannot be comprehended through reason, and anything that cannot be comprehended through reason does not exist."


Here lies the unbridgeable schism between Israel and the philosophers of Greece. Israel's is a theocentric world, employing thought and logic to understand that which is accessible to logic. But Greece's is a homo-centric world, using reason to define its boundaries.

Even if the thinkers of Greece had understood and accepted God and Torah, it would have been because they perceived it and understood it thus. While we believe that God created man, to their view it is man's understanding that created God.

It is in this aspect that Greek philosophy was a darkness infinitely worse than idolatry.

For an idolator can still understand the world to be theo-centered, and if he searches long enough, he will find the initial cause -- like the conclusion in Abraham’s debate with Nimrod, the fire worshipper: "Worship water, for it is stronger than fire; worship clouds, for they are stronger than water; worship winds..." (Bereishit Rabbah 38:8).

By following this chain of thought, one can someday arrive at the ultimate destination: the one true God. By contrast, once a person is locked in the vicious cycle of self-belief, he has no hope of exiting. Even if someone convinces him of the truth of God and the Torah, he is still the god; he believes because he believes! His awareness-cum-belief encompasses the two "I's" of philosophy: the "I" of thought and the "I" of existence.

Various rabbis have been quoted as saying that all philosophy is worthless, save for Kant's. One feels that this refers to the elements in Kant's philosophy that limits the scope of philosophy itself (i.e. critique of pure reasoning). By showing that philosophy is limited and cannot be used as a parameter of existence, Kant took a courageous step in the right direction.

An Orthodox Jew who has occasion to mingle with people far removed from Torah, whether Jewish or not, may often find himself treated with respect or understanding regarding his way of life and practices. Yet one point always seems to bother others: "Judaism’s nice, but you don't really believe that a God came down and told you to do all these things, do you?"

In light of this, it is no accident that Greek idols possessed human characteristics -- they were super-people with human frailties on a mammoth scale. But in essence, it was humankind as a whole that was being idolized.

A Western journalist visiting India ridiculed the animal worship so rampant there. The Indian countered, "But you, too, worship an animal."

The journalist inquired, "Which animal?"

"Man," answered the Indian.


The leadership of the Jewish nation is divided three ways: the Monarchy, the Sanhedrin, and the High Priesthood. The first two were usually the leaders of the Jewish nation. Yet against Greece, it was the priests, kohanim , who were picked to lead the fight. For it was the Torah stemming from the Divine source that Greek’s were trying to uproot. Thus, it was the task of the kohanim as the agents of God on earth to combat Greece.

When Alexander, the Great -- who heralded the beginning of Hellenization -- came to Jerusalem, Shimon HaTzaddik, who was then the High Priest, confronted him in the full regalia of his office (Yoma 69a). When Alexander bowed down to him, the eventual victory of Israel over Greece was assured for the generations to come.

Excerpt from Rabbi Lopiansky's book, "Timepieces", Targum Press.



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