Matthew Arnold, writing in his celebrated work Culture and Anarchy, suggests that Hebraism and Hellenism are the two essential philosophies of life between which civilized man must choose. Hanukkah is the tale of the clash between these two world visions. Thus, in the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah becomes the time of year when we try to relocate our spiritual direction on the road between Athens and Jerusalem.

For the Hellenist, the harmonious and balanced personality is the ideal. However, Hellenistic harmony comes from a place of detachment. Plato's ideal is to "become a spectator to all time and existence," while the basic Hebraic posture is passionate involvement in the realness of life. The Hellenist seeks eternity; he cannot find it in the world of particulars, which are here today and gone tomorrow. So he searches in the realm of essences, universals, and principles of logic, in whose unchanging shadow, he feels the breath of eternity. For the Hellenist, theory is always more important than application, thinking is higher and more pure than doing.


For the Jew there is no greater sin than the sin of detachment. The ideal is the full embrace of the concreteness of being. God is in the details. God is in the ferment of our lives. Jewish wisdom-masters are relatively unconcerned with grand systems and elegant structures of logic; their vision is almost always of the particular individual and his or her choices. For the Jew, eternity resides in the human encounter with the moment. God, the source of the eternal, is revealed in the infinite depths of the human personality no less than in the mathematical theorems of Pythagoras. The Hebraic worldview shapes the way we understand and live our lives in at least four important ways.

  1. The Jewish God, unlike that of the Hellenist, is personal and cares deeply about all of His creatures. The Talmud describes God who is attendant and empathetic to the joy and pain of his creatures, a God who cares. Our God knows our name. The mandate of Hebraic man is imitatio dei, to be like God. To be like God is about moral commitment to the betterment of our world and deep existential empathy with all who suffer. To be like God is to have a passionate social vision, which addresses all facets of humanity. It is to be concerned, engaged and attached.

  2. For the Hellenist, God is a force in the universe, an unmoved mover. The notion of a God who cries is blasphemous to the Hellenist. The notion of a God who doesn't cry is blasphemous to the Jew.

  3. The Hellenist seeks to prove via rational demonstration that his God exists, while the Jew longs for intimacy with God.

  4. As a function of this intimacy, the Jew on occasion even challenges God. Abraham becomes the first Jew by challenging the justice of God's intended destruction of Sodom and Gomorah. The Jew, writes Elie Wiesel, can be angry and even shout at God, but can never ignore God. Such is the nature of intimacy. The Hellenist however, must shape his God to be beyond taking any responsibility for the world. For the Hellenist to contemplate is to embrace. For the Jew to struggle is to embrace.

Without arguing against balance and stability, I would suggest that for the Jew, balance and stability are values which are subservient to moral passion, reality, and empathy. For the Jew to realize the Divine within is to be always rising and becoming. And to become one must risk falling, failing, and losing one's place. Change by definition involves instability: Balance needs to be disrupted when it fronts as an excuse for fear of growth and change.

Athens was a great city, but we are children of Jerusalem. Jewish eternity resides in the infinite value and holiness of our personal story and our potential for change.


excerpted From: Naom Zion & Barbara Spectre, eds., A Different Light: The Big Book of Hanukkah, Copyright © 2000 by Noam Zion (New York: Devora Publishing Co.; Jeruasalem: The Shalom Hartman Institute))

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