Un-hijacking Hanukah

Many of us will have come across presentations of Hanukah that portray it as the anniversary of the ultimate victory of Jewish history – that of Judaism over the secular culture of the time. In this depiction, a pure, unadulterated Judaism, untainted by any non-Jewish influence, prevailed over an engagement with the surrounding society, its aspirations and intellectual activity.

This portrayal may be at odds with a number of ancient Jewish sources. In an allegorical reading of the laws governing the parah adumah (red cow, the ashes of which were used for spiritual purification), the holy Zohar learns:

‘Unblemished’ – this refers to the Greek kingdom, for they are close to the path of truth. (Zohar HaKodosh 2:237a)

In the same vein (although in reality, this has no modern application), one may write certain holy texts in Greek as the sole alternative to Hebrew. The Sages find a source for this ruling in the post-diluvian blessings given by Noah to his sons: Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people and Yefes, the ancestor of Greece. The usual translation of the verse is:

God shall give beauty (usual translation is ‘broaden’) to Yefes, yet He shall reside in the tents of Shem… (BeReishis 9:27)

The Talmud radically rereads the verse:

God shall give beauty to Yefes, and it shall reside in the tents of Shem – the interests of Yefes shall reside in the tents of Shem. (Megillah 9b)

These sources may indicate that far from rejecting Greek thought and culture, there is a view that incorporates them into the Jewish world. The Greeks developed the aesthetic aspects of life, such as music, art, literature, mathematics, and certain types of philosophy. This is the ‘beauty of Yefes’, which the Talmud encourages us not to revile, but to place firmly within the ‘tents of Shem’.

Yet while we Jews may subscribe to the coexistence of the physical and spiritual worlds, many Torah sources attribute to the Greeks an unwillingness to admit any connection between this world and the next. They may have believed in a higher reality, but considered it to have no impact on human lives. As such, the Torah could be revered as a classic of world literature, but not as the Divine guide to purposeful existence; it could take its place in a library alongside the works of Aristotle, but could never be considered a tool for human elevation.

In this light, we may recast the distinction between Jewish and Greek ideologies and hence the true nature of the victory of Hanukah. Having uncoupled the physical and spiritual worlds, the Greeks saw literature, philosophy, music, etc., as autonomous pursuits, rather than ways of experiencing spirituality within the physical world. In contrast, Jewish life encourages these endeavours only when they are a means to touch the Divine, but never as ends in themselves. The beauty of Yefes can and must live only within the tents of Shem.

The difference between our world view and that of the Greeks may seem slight, but it lies in understanding the very purpose of all cultural and other ‘secular’ pursuits. The victory of Hanukah – one of means over ends – is one that changed the face of the world.

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7 Responses

  1. Avi says:

    Beautifully put! R’ Shamshon Rephael Hirsch had a similar point of
    view—see Collected Writings I or II, Kisleiv.

  2. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Very well said! I would only change: “The beauty of Yefes can and must live only within the tents of Shem.” to: The beauty of Yefes unconstrained by the tent of Shem can (perhaps even often) be distorted. There is certainly Chachmah BaGoyim, but there are even Tzaddikim in their midst.

    And I wonder if the syrian/greeks who were the protaganists in the chanukah story were to the idealized, authentic culture of greece somewhat like reform jews to orthodox, same family different values and practices, very much outside the tent of Shem.

    a freilichen chanukah!

  3. Phil says:

    I’ve heard it put this way: The Jews are compared to a dove, which is yonah, the same root as Yavan. Yavan is Tzion without the Tzaddik. (not just talking about the *letter*.)

  4. Danny Rubin says:

    Reb Harvey,

    Thank you for this beautiful post.It seems the height of irony that American society uses Chanuka as a vehicle for assimilation into the Christmas season ( I’m sure it is not the only thing Americans do that you find peculiar :-)). Are there any sources that discuss the unfortunate timing of Chanuka adjacent to what is proported to be the birth of Christianity?

    Danny Rubin

  5. Chaim Wolfson says:

    I haven’t had a chance to see how Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch makes his point, but based on my understanding of TIDE, I think that as the “beauty of Yefes” relates to Jews, he would have preferred Rabbi Belovski’s formulation. Non-Jews do not “dwell in the tent of Shem”, but history has shown that they, too, require some sort of moral compass to ensure that they do not distort “the beauty of Yefes”. Germany is a case in point. And for all the positive aspects of Greek culture, I’m not sure how comfortable any of us would have been living as Jews in ancient Athens.

  6. Noam says:

    Yefet in the tents of Shem was the topic of one of the inaugural lectures at the Berlin Theological Seminary, delivered, I think, by Rav David Tzvi Hoffman zatzal. It was reprinted in the last few years.


    Noam, IIRC, the article was translated into English by Dr. Marc Shapiro and appeared in either The Torah U-Madda Journal or Tradition.

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