CHANUCAH GIFT GUIDE
T O PARAPHRASE the famous l i ne from Monty Python’s Life
of Brian, what have the Greeks ever done for us? Well, for one thing, i f it wasn’t for the Greeks, we wouldn’t be about to celebrate the festival of Chanucah.
While the festival commemorates a miracle that occurred during a lengthy war as the Israelites strove to rid the country of their oppressors, what went before and after was a much more fundamental battle of cultures.
There were many similarities between the Jews and the Greeks in those days. Both believed they were on a higher cultural level than most, if not all, of the other nations around them. Where the Jews were concerned, they refused steadfastly to be forced to adopt the cultures of numerous countries that invaded them prior to the arrival of the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great.
Here was a people with whom the Jews could associate. Here was a people that took life as seriously as they did and cared about other human beings — up to a point. Here was a people with high opinions of themselves, though as we will see, that didn’t always chime with all of the Jews.
In a simplistic form, according to the Orthodox American Rabbi Berel Wein’s
jewishhistory.org website, the differences could be summed up thus: “The Hebrew mind asks: ‘What must I do?’ but the Greek mind asks: ‘Why must I do it?’ The Hebrew mind thinks of the beauty of holiness, while the Greek mind seeks the holiness of beauty.”
The first divergence of opinion was about supreme beings. The Greeks worshipped a number of gods in whom they had imbued all the worst traits of humans, so the gods got up to all sorts of mischief and Machiavellian goingson. Effectively, the gods behaved like humans, so the humans saw that as a green light to do the same.
The Greek ( human) populace couldn’t get their collective heads around the fact that the Jews had only one supreme being, who created everything yet was faceless and formless. The Jews put up stout and unflinching resistance to Greek demands that they create idols of their God’s image. However, some Jews, who became known as Hellenists, did adopt the culture and the language, going so far as to give their children Greek names.
Another major difference concerned circumcision. The Greeks regarded the human body as a perfect form and gave free rein to nudity and sexual practices, as one can see from many of their sculptures in museums and historic sites that have survived from the period.
Consequently they were against the practice of circumcision. Never mind that it was a fundamental part of the Jewish faith and the covenant with God — the Greeks banned it.
So what did the two peoples have in common? Philosophy, for a start. As a boy, Alexander was taught by Aristotle and the pair figure in a medieval legend mentioned by Rabbi Moses Isserlis (the “Rema”).
When Alexander conquered Israel and entered Jerusalem, so the story goes, he brought Aristotle to the city. According to this account, Aristotle was given access to the writings and works of King Solomon, including Ecclesiastes — regarded as the first book of philosophy — which the Greek philosopher combined with his own.
In the post-Alexander era, Ptolemy, the ruler in Alexandria, asked the Jews there to translate the Torah into Greek, which they did. He ordered 72 rabbis (six from each tribe) into separate rooms and they produced the Septuagint — from the Latin for 70.
Olive oil was another commonality. This was a precious commodity in ancient Greece. Athene, the daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom, arts and literature, was said to have won a contest against Poseidon to be patron of the city, when she offered an olive tree to the Athenians. The city adopted her name and the olive tree became her holy tree.
Pure olive oil was, of course, used to keep the menorah flame burning in the temple. The war that led to its desecration occurred in the wake of the death of Alexander. He was succeeded by his two top generals, Ptolemy and Seleucus; the latter ruled from a city that is now Damascus. They could not agree on a dividing line between their empires so they went to war — with Israel in the middle. This was
where the Maccabees entered the fray. The five sons of Matisyahu led a revolt that lasted for many years but which ultimately defeated the armies invading from the north. The invaders were Syrians who had retained Greek thought and culture.
As we know, the miracle occurred when the Maccabees re-entered the sacked Temple and found a single vessel of pure olive oil that was enough for only one day but burned for the eight needed to replenish the stock.
The similarities between Greeks and Jews have drawn interest down the ages. In his book Closing The Ring, Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill was moved to remark: “The Greeks rival the Jews in being the most politically minded race in the world. No two races have set such mark upon the world. Both have shown a capacity for survival, in spite of unending perils and sufferings from external oppressors, matched only by their own ceaseless feuds, quarrels and convulsions. No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding lights of modern faith and culture. Personally I have always been on the side of both and believed in their invincible power to survive internal strife and the world tides threatening their extinction.”
Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, dean of the London School of Jewish Studies in Hendon, is leading two Chanucah tours of the Greek collection at the British Museum, looking at artefacts connected to Judaism, including olive oil lamps and coins. The tours will take place on the mornings of December 7 and 13.
Athens and Jerusalem: no two cities have had more impact
As a boy, Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle