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Judaism: The Wisdom of Japeth, the Culture of Greece

Hanukkah does not merely celebrate our military victory over an enemy who wished to remove political independence from Judea.
Published: Saturday, November 30, 2013 11:45 PM


"The Lord shall broaden and beautify Japheth, and he [or perhaps He] shall dwell in the tents of Shem" (Gen. 9:27)

Why is there no clear religious prohibition against the study of Greek wisdom and intellectual involvement in philosophy, mathematics, the sciences, secular music, art, literature and theater? Why was no prohibition made against the study of all the expressions of Greek culture that we know as Hellenism? 

Hanukkah does not merely celebrate our military victory over an enemy who wished to remove political independence from Judea. Our main celebration is the lighting of the menorah, the stylized "tree of life." This ceremony makes the statement that "the candle is commandment, and Torah is our light" (Proverbs 6:23).  In other words, it is God's will and His miracles - as in the small cruse of oil only sufficient to last for one day, but which lasted for eight - and not human reason that must direct human affairs and activities.

According to this view, the Haredim are right, at least as far as banning university is concerned.  This is precisely the meaning of the Biblical verse as they read it, "The Lord may broaden and glorify Yafet [Greece and Greek wisdom], but only He [the Lord, without Greek wisdom] may dwell in the tent or Shem". 

There is one Talmudic passage (B.T. Baba Kama 82b) that seemingly prohibits the study of Greek wisdom.  It cites an internecine battle between two brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, descendants of the Hasmonean dynasty (the instigators of the Judean victory over the Jewish Hellenists and the Greek-Syrians at Hanukah). An elderly man knowledgeable in Greek wisdom urged Aristobulus (whose army was outside of the walls of Jerusalem) to hoist a pig instead of a bullock over the ramparts, thus preventing and even desecrating the daily Temple sacrifice which continued to be offered by Hyrcanus from within Jerusalem.

The actions of this devotee of Greek wisdom who wished to destroy our Hebrew civilization led to a devastating earthquake in the land of Israel. From that day onwards, ruled the Sages, "Cursed be the individual who raises pigs and cursed be the father who teaches his child Greek wisdom."  The prohibition seems to be absolute. So our legal codes forbid us from raising pigs - or even benefitting in any way from pigs or pig skins.

However, as far as Greek wisdom is concerned, the story is strangely different.  The Talmud praises the Greek language and deems "Greek wisdom" a skill necessary for international political discourse (ibid 83a).  In fact, a parallel account at the end of Tractate Sota defines "Greek wisdom" in the context of the prohibition as a "special language of nuance and riddle" used for espionage.  This is how Maimonides (Commentary on last Mishnah in Sota) understood the Talmudic decree, adding that "Greek wisdom" has since disappeared from use, and hence the prohibition no longer has practical application.

How can we understand this refusal to ban Greek wisdom? It is particularly strange since the Books of Maccabees demonstrate that the battles commemorated by Hanukah were waged by religious Hasmoneans, who rebelled against the elite ruling priesthood, which had been captivated by the "modern" Hellenistic culture and its philosophy, esthetics and hedonism. 

I believe it is because Judaism always valued wisdom - philosophy and science - and appreciated art and music.  Witness the Books of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, which are even part of our sacred canon. The artist-architect of the Desert Sanctuary, Bezale,l has a name which means "in the shadow of God"; music abounded in the Holy Temple: King Solomon was highly praised for his worldly wisdom.  The Talmud praises science, maintaining that those who are capable of studying it and do not do so "are making themselves blind to God's handiwork" (B.T. Shabbat 75a).  Maimonides places philosophy and science under the rubric of gemara, insisting that these disciplines must be a necessary part of the curriculum in an Academy of Talmudic studies, as part of the commandment to strive to know God.

The Rashba (Rav Shlomo ben Adrat, Spain d.1310) wrote three responsa in which he banned the study of philosophy, but only for those under the age of 25 (Responsa 415,416,417), and Rav Moshe Isserles  and the Vilna Gaon (Yoreh Deah 346,4; Biyur HaGra 18) both allow the study of science and philosophy.  Although the Vilna Gaon is cited (Yoreh Deah 179) as saying that the "accursed philosophy turned Maimonides astray," one of the Vilna Gaon's best students, Rav Menashe from Ilia, wrote that, "these words never emanated from the Gaon's pen nor from his sacred mouth". 

Indeed the Vilna Gaon is quoted by Rabbi Barukh Shik of Shklov:  "To the extent that a person lacks knowledge of wisdom, he will also lack one hundred measures of the wisdom of Torah, since Torah and wisdom are bound up together."  As a result of the importance that our Tradition gave to the wisdom of philosophy and science, it would have been inconceivable for the Sages to ban Greek wisdom.

Hence, an alternate interpretation of the opening verse quoted above would serve as an introduction to this commentary, "The Lord shall broaden and beautify Yaphet (Greece), and he (Yaphet) shall dwell in the tents of Shem." "The beauty of Yaphet must adorn the tents of Shem" (Gen 9:27, Gen Rabbah ad loc.). 

Torah must be wed to university study.