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Morah Yehudis Fishman tries to unravel the Torah’s attitude to Greek culture from a Chassidic perspective, and relates this to Chanukah.

The Beauty That Was Greece

The Torah’s attitude to Greek culture seems somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the sages refer to the Hellenistic period in Jewish history as a time of great darkness. On the other hand, the Talmud says the only language other than Hebrew in which a Torah scroll could be written was Greek! Which is it – friend or foe? Let us try to unravel this question from a Chassidic perspective.

One year I tutored a very bright first grade girl, whose parents were both professionals. One day I got a bemused call from the girl’s mother. She said that her daughter Batya came home from her lesson today with a very disconcerting comment: She insisted that when she grew up, she wanted to be a millionaire. I replied, said the mother, ‘Is that the Torah you learned in your lesson today?’ She explained, ‘No, but I decided I wanted Morah Yehudis to be my teacher forever, and someone had to pay her!’

The Torah ideal is about achieving harmony between spirit and matter. On one hand, the Talmudic sages would be appalled at how contemporary society puts such a premium on physical appearance and spends billions on the cosmetic industry. On the other hand, the Talmud itself insists that a husband provide a bride with her cosmetic needs, and even allows a bride certain physical indulgences at times, which are forbidden to everyone else.

Both the sacred and the profane try to enlist concepts of beauty into their respective domains. One reason may be that from a philosophical and Chassidic approach in particular, there are no real opposites in a world permeated by the unity of G-d. This is not to say that there are no distinctions, but there are bridges and transformations that are possible between all levels of existence. Aramaic is considered a bridge language between Hebrew, called the Holy Tongue, and secular languages. In a similar way, so is Greek. (Unfortunately, nowadays, Hebrew is ‘like Greek’ to many Jews.)

In space, according to the Torah, the east bank of Jordan is a bridge area between Israel, the holy land, and other countries. And in the realm of soul, there is something in Chassidut called, ‘nefesh hasichlit,’ the intellectual soul.

How are these ideas related to Chanukah? The Hellenists wanted to cut off the beauty of creation, especially the physical form, from the Creator. Space and time also reflect a similar dynamic. The Hellenists forbade the Jews to practice Shabos, Rosh Chodesh, and Brit Milah. Milah relates to the body, Shabos to the sanctification of time, and Rosh Chodesh to the cycle of holidays where, Biblically, Jews were commanded to spend near the holiest space in the world, Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash.

However, according to Torah thought, everything in creation, especially beauty, can potentially be a bridge between the sacred and the profane. Thus, as some rabbis put it, the battle between Israel and Greece was over the difference between “The beauty of holiness or the holiness of beauty.”

The first time beauty is mentioned in the Torah is in the story of Noach and his three sons.  The Shem Mishmuel, the Sochachover Rebbe, elaborates on the connection between Chanukah and the story of Noach’s three sons, when they found him lying naked and inebriated. In the choice between respect and violation, the polarities were clear: Shem chose to respect, Cham chose to violate. But, in keeping with the bridge approach, there was someone in between who vacillated. This was Yefet, whose name means beauty. Only thus can we more fully appreciate the implication of what Noach said about Yefet; ‘G-d will broaden Yefet, (if/when) he dwells in the tents of Shem. In other words, when/if Yefet chooses to align with Shem, then he will expand his domain from the profane to the sacred.

This is also how Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsh sees the three sons of Noach- Shem meaning name, Cham, meaning hot, and Yefes meaning beautiful. Shem is the symbol of spirit, Cham, of matter, including instinct or passion, and Yefes of form, or aesthetic sensitivity and yearning.  When Noach became intoxicated, each son responded differently, indeed, true to his name. Shem was the one who took the initiative in covering his nakedness, thus expressing the concept behind modesty – the toning down of physical supremacy, so that the soul, the Neshama in which Shem is imbedded, can be the guide. Cham, on the other hand, having also been the one to disobey the divine jurisdiction not to engage in marital relations in the ark, here too broke the boundaries of decency and jeered at his father’s weakness. Yefes had to decide which brother to follow and emulate. If we look at this episode as an archetype, the emerging story says a lot about both life and history.

Beauty as an abstraction has neutral moral value. But once it is applied, it must eventually take sides and chose a master or be conscripted into the service of opposing positions. Therefore, when Noach awakens, he curses Cham who belittled him, he blesses Shem who honored him, and makes – according to Rabbi Hirsh, the blessing of Yefet contingent on remaining in the tent of Shem, that is, serving the values of righteousness and integrity.

The dynamic between the three sons was not a one time happening. As the Shem Mishmuel and others point out, their names and lives contain a foreshadowing of the events surrounding the festival of Chanukah. The possibility of a Greek translation of Torah was made because of Greek’s unique beauty. The hint for this distinction is from the above prophecy of Noach. When the Torah says, ‘Yaft Elokim l’Yefet, in addition to meaning that Hashem will broaden for Yefet, it also literally means, ‘Hashem will beautify for Yefet.’ However, when the Hellenists began to separate beauty from its moral ties, and transfer it to an amoral and eventually immoral context, then the battle of Chanukah took place.

Many sages see the victory symbolized by the rekindling of the Menorah, as the return of beauty to its rightful place in creation, to the service and enhancement of G-dliness in the earthly realm. The beauty aspect of Chanukah is so important that the way we fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the menorah, by adding a new light each night, is called, ‘mehadrin min hamehadrin,’ the most beautiful of the beautiful.

Perhaps this sheds light on the Talmudic teaching (Ketubot 111) that in the future even the barren trees will become fruitful. What is the higher purpose in this? Are there not enough sources of physical pleasure in the world? A reason may be that in this world where the practice of Torah and good deeds is so challenging, it would be enough of an accomplishment to be able to transform whatever matter already exists into spirit, for the honor of G-d. In the future however, when the commitment to Torah and good deeds proliferate, Hashem will add more physical opportunities in the world to serve as vessels for holiness.

As my young student put it, the time must come to use millions of dollars for the sake of Torah. Could this be a reason for the custom of giving Chanukah gelt? May we all be blessed with a Chanukah that brings blessings to our lives both materially and spiritually, and the ultimate peace and harmony with the coming of Mashiach.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

Morah Yehudis Fishman
I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

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2 comments

  1. This essay was both beautiful and spiritual. Your writing befits your content……as usual – brava (I know – its Italian not Greek). I too hope to get millions – and for sure contributing to you would be on the top of my list.

    Love,

    Nancy

  2. Ah. to go back to the day when we did learn together in the Beis Medrash at the Bostoner Rebbe's shul.

    Your contributions to Jewish learning are worth more than millions.

    So nice to have this "read" in leu of learning with you in person.