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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

jew­ish­his­ 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

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