The Hebraic and the Hellenic views of life have been often contrasted. The Hebrew stressed reliance upon an omnipotent God and conformity to a divinely sanctioned moral law; he was essentially serious, restrained, willing to recognize his finite limitations. To seek God was the ultimate wisdom, to follow His precepts the ultimate virtue. The Greek accepted no revelation as ultimate; he strove to penetrate to the core of his conceptions, analyzing the very basis of his knowledge. He was blessed with a delicate, subtle reason and with a keen desire to use it, to probe with it, to open the very heart of reality.

The Hebrew was inclined to mysticism; he accepted the moral law and would not go beyond it. The Greek bowed to no law but that of complete self-expression. He loved beauty and art, the outdoor life, and every aspect of nature which appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities. Where the Hebrew asked: "What must I do?" the Greek asked: "Why must I do it?" ... The Hebrew believed in the beauty of holiness; the Greek believed in the holiness of beauty.

The two points of view could not very well be reconciled in an individual. One could not accept a revealed law as ultimate, and yet honestly question the very foundations of life; or submit to a moral law and yet exploit one's capacities without restraint. But was it not possible for both spirits to be present in a whole people, residing in individuals who were splendid examples of each? National life would indeed be ideally rounded out if it developed at once the burning zeal for social righteousness of an Amos or an Isaiah, and the serene wisdom of a Socrates or a Plato, the moral fervor of a Jeremiah and the artistic genius of a Praxiteles.

Unfortunately, the best in the Greek spirit did not meet the best in the Hebrew spirit. The splendid achievements of the philosophers and the artists, their search for truth and beauty, their mellowed humanistic approach, did not come to the East in the wagons of the Greek conquerors. There came instead a degraded imitation of Hellenism, externals with the glowing heart burnt out, a crude paganism, a callousness for the common weal, a cheap sophistry, a cynicism easily undermining old conceptions and older loyalties, but substituting nothing constructive in their place.

Too often the gymnasium and the ampitheater meant lewdness and licentiousness; the search for intellectual clarity meant dishonest banter and trickiness, the pursuit of the beautiful meant moral irresponsibility....

In Judah, coming after along period of priestly sternness and puritanic piety, the Greek ideals wrought havoc. At first only a few more daring souls stepped out of the established conventions. But as their numbers grew, the older generations stood back aghast. The youth of the land were aping names and manner; they were shamelessly displaying their nudeness in the Greek Palaestra. More too: they were assimilating the whole Greek Weltanschauung. They were even attacking the laws and customs in which they were reared. This was no mere passing fad, to be treated indulgently.

The masses were, as usual, not the decisive elements in the conflict. They were fuddled, bewildered, and inarticulate. They traveled in the beaten path, perhaps vaguely wondering where the quarrel lay. But the two extreme factions, Puritans and Hellenists, filled the synagogues and the marketplace with their din as they sought to discredit each other.

Soon Judah was rent by the quarrels of two factions who could not understand each other. Almost every family found itself divided. What was earnest to one group was jest to the other; what was pleasure to one was torment to the other; and neither side gave quarter. Those who loved the Greek ways found Judaism crude and soul-repressing. They looked upon the sacerdotalists as fools if sincere, and as hypocrites if not ready with answers. The stern nationalists, on the other hand, alarmed by the assaults on their mode of life, drew no distinctions in judging the alien culture. Hating lasciviousness, they decried all that was beautiful in Greek art; hating sophistry and irreverence, they decried all that the philosophers taught. There could be no compromise.

Victory, quite naturally, as usual seemed to go at first to the hellenizers. They gathered to them the youth of all classes, the aristocracy, and even some of the priests. Ambitious men discovered that the way to advancement, at least socially, lay in living like the Greek gentlemen. By the beginning of the second century, the old Judaism was in serious danger of dissolution, threatened with death, not by the mellowed wisdom of ancient Hellas, but by the bastard culture which called itself an offspring. Perhaps Judaism would have been quietly swallowed up as so many other civilizations had been; but at the dramatic moment history worked one of its miracles. Suddenly the hellenizers were thoroughly discredited in a reaction, which shifted the whole balance of the Near East, a reaction brought about by the harshness and stupidity of new Syrian monarch who usurped the throne in 175 BCE.


The irony, is, of course, that the Maccabees led to the integration of Hellenism and Judaism, so ultimately there was a synthesis. The Rabbis didn't like this, which is why they never made a big deal about Hannukah. They too, however, were very influenced by hellenistic culture and Greek thinking, and did not represent a continuation of the conservative, priestly religion of pre-hellenistic time. The idea that authority stems from the study of Torah and the quest for truth through learning (and not with the Priestly class) is both Socratic and democratic [ed.].

excerpted From: A History of the Jews, 2nd rev. edition (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940), pp.100-102. Reprinted in The Hanukkah Anthology. Philadelphia: JPS, 1992.
author Abraham Leon Sachar was founder and first president of Brandeis University; he was the author of the classic A History of the Jews and other historical works.




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