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    Was Antiochus a red herring?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 4 December 2020.

    Chanukah in London in 1961 was spoilt by an article by Professor Raphael Loewe in the Jewish Chronicle headed “Did Greece harm Judaism?”

    Loewe said that Chanukah was not a festival of fun, not a populist celebration of heroes against villains but a serious moment for reflection. He brushed Antiochus aside as an egotistical nobody who was playing for time for political reasons, hoping to push off the engulfing of his realm in the Roman empire.

    The Jews found themselves caught up in the struggle, but the real problem was not Antiochus, not even a cultural tug-of-war between Judaism and Hellenism – according to Loewe, the two were not implacable enemies and the choice was between a life with more Hellenism, or less.

    What did the Jews have against the Greeks? That Hellenism was something new? Unlikely; Jews had long been tempted by other civilisations.

    That Greek culture promoted idolatry? Biblical history was full of idolatrous episodes.

    That human characteristics were ascribed to the Greek pantheon? Again nothing new. Judaism had long been concerned about human terminology applied to God (the arm of God, the hand of God, the mouth of God).

    Immorality? The Greeks did not invent immoral orgies or unethical excesses, and the Hebrew prophets had been attacking moral lapses for centuries.

    Lack of ethics? Greek ethical teaching had its commonalities with Jewish ethics.

    Threats to Jewish nationalism? Jews had been tolerant of other ethnicities for generations.

    Loewe thought it must have been “a dramatic danger signal” that shocked the Jews – perhaps the representational art of the Hellenistic world which contradicted the strict Jewish sense of the nature of God.

    The Greeks liked to be surrounded by statues and pictures, and they admired physical handsomeness. Judaism saw this as graven images, avodah zarah.

    What Judaism placed on an ideas-pedestal was not physical man but non-physical God, not avodah zarah but avodah shebalev, inner virtue. What mattered was not looks but books. What mattered with God was His message.

    Another version of this theory appears in Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld’s Universal Bible, which says the Greeks esteemed beauty as an end in itself, whereas Jews believed in beauty for goodness’ sake.

    The sages say that when the Torah speaks of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem (Bereshit 9:27) it is making a statement that the beauty of Greece (yefet, from yafeh) must answer to the ethics of Shem the ancestor of Israel.

    Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said Yefet ennobled the world aesthetically: Shem enlightened it spiritually and morally.

    Loewe was wrong to minimise the hurt that Antiochus caused the Jews. More importantly, he was wrong to brush aside the symbolism of the Greek adulation of art.

    The Jewish objection was not to art itself but to how it reduced the idea of God as the epitome of truth. Judaism believed that the path to truth was revelation, not the Greek idea of reason. Reason and logic had their place, but not on their own, but as a means to delve into the Word of God.

    If there were problems with understanding God, the fault was in us and not in God.

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