• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    Was Antiochus a red herring?

    The Chanukah issue of the Jewish Chronicle on 1 December, 1961, carried an article by Raphael Loewe on the subject, “Did Greece harm Judaism?”

    Professor Loewe questioned the widespread view that Chanukah was merely a fun festival or a populist celebration of heroism. He argued that it was a serious moment for national reflection.

    He brushed Antiochus aside as an egotistical nobody who played for time for political reasons, hoping to prevent the engulfing of his realm into the Roman empire.

    According to Loewe, the Jews found themselves caught up in the struggle, but the real problem was neither the feelings of the Jews nor the pretensions of Antiochus. It was a cultural tug-of-war between Judaism and Hellenism. Loewe says the two cultures were not such implacable enemies as people imagine. The choice was how much or how little Hellenism to adopt.

    Was Hellenism something new? Unlikely: Jews had long been tempted by other civilisations. Was it that Greek culture promoted idolatry? The Bible was full of idolatrous episodes. Was it 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).

    Was immorality the problem? The Greeks did not invent immoral orgies or unethical excesses, and the Hebrew prophets had been attacking moral lapses for centuries. Was the problem a lack of ethics? The fact is that Greek ethical teaching had its commonalities with Jewish ethics.

    Did Hellenism threaten Jewish nationalism? The truth is that Jews had been tolerant of other ethnicities for generations. But now what Loewe called “a dramatic danger signal” shocked the Jews – perhaps the representational art of the Hellenistic world which challenged the strict Jewish sense of the nature of God. After all, the Greeks liked to be surrounded by statues and pictures, and they admired physical handsomeness. Judaism saw all this as an expression of avodah zarah, graven images.

    What Judaism valued 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.

    Solomon Schonfeld’s book The Universal Bible says the Greeks appreciated 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 (Gen. 10:27) it is making a statement that the beauty of Greece must not overwhelm the ethics of Israel. Samson Raphael Hirsch said Yefet beautified the world whilst Shem enlightened it.

    Loewe was wrong to belittle the hurt that Antiochus caused the Jews. 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 Divine truth from Revelation to Reason.

    Comments are closed.