PARSHAT VAYESHEV, HANUKKAH

THE GREEKS

“Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.”   (Genesis 41:23)

            At the end of this portion, Joseph is in jail and life looks hopeless.  Yet we know that he will be released and become the second most powerful man in Egypt.  As they say, “It is always darkest before the dawn.”   Hanukkah always falls during the darkest time of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere.)  Nonetheless, we know that light will push away the darkness.  As we face these dark times, may our Hanukkah lights be a symbol of hope in the future.

            Of course, Hanukkah celebrates a victory of Judah Maccabee and his brothers against the Syrian – Greeks.  They had sought to prevent the people Israel from practicing their faith.  With the victory, the Maccabees rededicated the Temple and began eight days of celebration.  Each day we increase the number of candles, increasing the light.  It is a powerful symbol of hope.

But is Judaism truly anti-Greek?  I am a rabbi who teaches philosophy, a system of thinking with roots in ancient Greece.  Here is a short selection from my soon-to-be-published book Does the Universe Have a Soul?

One of my college students approached me before my Introduction to Philosophy class. He was surprised that I was teaching college philosophy.   How can I be a rabbi and teach secular philosophy?   Don’t they contradict each other?  After all, religion gets truth from revelation, sacred scripture, and properly ordained authority.  Philosophy gets truth from open ended free debate.   What could religion and philosophy have in common?

            My student sounded like the early Church father Tertullian (155–220). He famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Athens is the birthplace of philosophy while Jerusalem is the center of religion. The two should have nothing to do with each other. Religion begins with faith while philosophy begins with arguments. How can I accept both?

            I answered that it was a great question.  I prefer the approach of the great Christian thinker considered a saint by the Catholic Church, Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109). Anselm invented the ontological proof for the existence of God, which philosophers still argue over to this day. He defined philosophy as “faith seeking understanding.” Such religious thinkers as the Muslim Avicenna, the Jewish Maimonides, and the Christian Thomas Aquinas begin with faith, and use philosophical arguments to deepen their faith.  Personally, my study of secular philosophy has deepened my Jewish faith.

            In fact, the Rabbis of the Talmudic period had a surprising respect for the Greek philosophical tradition. In the Talmud (Megillah 9b), the sage Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel allowed Torah scrolls to be written in Greek. He based this on the blessing in the Torah that Noah gives his sons. “God shall enlarge Japheth and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).  Japheth was the progenitor of Yavan, the Hebrew word for Greek. The Rabbis seem to read the verse from Genesis that the traditions of Greece shall enlighten the tent of the Hebrews.

            Yes, we fought the Greeks.  But we also learned from the Greeks.  This raises a deep question – can someone be both our enemy and our teacher?  It is a question worth pondering as we begin our celebration of Hanukkah.