Hellenism, A Swedish Barbarian, and Chanukah
All men, claimed Heinrich Heine, the apostate German-Jewish poet, are either Jews or Greeks. For traditional Jews, the very essence of Chanukah is bound up in the struggle between those civilizations. An “art” exhibit in Sweden that utilizes the stolen ashes of Jews murdered at Majdanek helps make the choice easier for all decent human beings.
Chanukah celebrates the successful Jewish resistance to Hellenic culture. Defining the parameters of the clash has not been so easy. To some, Athens vs. Jerusalem meant human reason as opposed to Divine revelation. Matthew Arnold, the British poet and critic, saw Hebraism as concerned with conduct and obedience, especially consciousness of sin. Hellenism, on the other hand, saw things as they really are and celebrated spontaneity of consciousness. (“Hebraism and Hellenism,” 1869). Similarly, Nietzsche also pointed to the importance of the moral impulse. He remarked that the Greeks blame the gods; the Jews blame themselves.
Elsewhere, Arnold came up with what may be the money quote about the difference: Greece, he said, found holiness in beauty. Jews found the beauty of holiness.
The attitude of Chazal is perhaps best summed up by Rav Yehuda ha-Levi in Kuzari. Yavan, he said, bore flowers but no fruit. Greece was infatuated with beauty, with the esthetic, while Jews understood principle.
We continue to grapple with questions of judging things by how they look, how they appeal to our sense of beauty and harmony, or by what the voice of conscience dictates. All too often, we give preference to the former without considering the latter.
The claim that art occupies sacred space is one example. Artists sometimes call for special respect and immunity, asking for privilege not accorded to others. When shown to have abused the privilege by being offensive, they scoff.
Carl Michael von Hausswolff’s “Memory Works” in the Martin Bryder Gallery of Lund,Sweden, uses the ashes of Holocaust victims mixed with water to create grey streaks on a canvas. The ashes were stolen by the artist during a visit to the notorious extermination camp of Majdanek in 1989. Jews and others are outraged at the desecration of the dead, something considered to be impermissible by the three monotheistic religions and beyond. Yet, gallery owner Martin Bryder told Swedish radio that he sees no “moral flaws” in displaying the piece.
The meretricious attraction of the esthetic doesn’t limit itself to high-brow exhibits of weird art. It suffuses low culture as well. Huge numbers of people hang on to every word and gesture of people who somehow look good. They may be actors and actresses, or sports figures. Often, they distinguish themselves for their lack of education and common sense, but their endorsements of anything from products to politicians matter, defying reason. Their esthetic wins out, as Greece triumphs over Jerusalem.
At least for them.
For all his appreciation of the Jewish contribution, Arnold, mourned the effects of the ascendance of Hebraism. Having produced a surfeit of “man’s perceiving and knowing side, this unnatural defect of his feeling and acting side, provoked a reaction.” Arnold championed the return to nature, the “relaxation…of the moral fibre.” Nineteenth century Europe was fighting off the shackles of moral repression forged by Judaism.
He turned out to be prophetic. The return to Hellenism produced advances in science which “has now made visible to everybody the great and pregnant elements of difference which lie in race… Hellenism is of Indo-European growth, Hebraism is of Semitic growth; and we English, a nation of Indo- European stock, seem to belong naturally to the movement of Hellenism.” (Culture and Anarchy, 1869)
Arnold started down a road of Indo-European supremacy. Those who continued on the road found a different name for Indo-European, calling it “Aryan,” especially in regard to Nordic peoples like Swedes.
That road led straight to Majdanek, and took the lives of millions – both Jews who were targeted, and modern-day Greeks who resisted it.