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.

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16 Responses

  1. Harry Zeitlin says:

    From the inside of Judaism, I’ve always been baffled by the West’s blindness to anything not empirical as well as the Asian blindness to everything that is (“all is illusion”, etc.). I’d argue that our culture, long-based in Gemara, seems to be the only one that understands that both the linear and the associative, the empirical and the intuitive, the inner and the outer, are all created by HaKadosh Baruch Hu, that both points of view are necessary but neither is sufficient. This is just another way of describing how we’re supposed to be a “light to the nations”. Obviously, though, we need to guard against complaisance–Chanukah returns every year.

  2. DF says:

    This is an interesting article. The picture using Holocaust ashes is, I think, a red herring, because clearly this “artist” is an outlier. He’s no more representative of Athens than the Neturei Karta is of Jerusalem. No, the real question is, why must this be portrayed as a zero-sum battle between holiness and beauty, when for the vast majority of civilized people – including Jews and non-Jews – there is great value in both?

    1) The artist is an outlier. The owner of the gallery is not. Those who are not offended by it are not. (The silence is not unanimous. There have been protests, just not enough. And remember we are talking about a country in which the mayor of one of its largest cities refuses to protect old Jews from Muslim criminals, telling them they must first dissociate themselves from Israel. And where the ombudsperson told a colleague of mine that anyone who could circumcise a child is a barbarian.
    2) The recipe for including the positive aspects of Greece was already promoted by the Torah. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, vayishkon b’ohalei Shem.” Chazal recognized the contribution of Yefes, allowing it to be the only foreign language approved for krias haTorah. Yet, they insisted that Yefes had to dwell within the tents of Shem, to be bound by the strictures placed on it by revealed Divine reason. See R Hirsch’s extraordinary treatment of the psukim.

  3. Michoel Kelmar says:

    Interesting. Yefes merited k’vurah through his kavod for Noach, in covering his body, along with Shem. And now their “artistic sense” has descended the the point of bizui hames (disgracing human remains). The Shem MiShmuel mentions in the name of his father, the Avnei Nezer, that the two mitzvos of Chanukah serve to reclaim (I am paraphrasing from memory here) the t’fisa that Yavan (Yefes) has in two areas. Where as Cham “looked” at his father’s nakedness, and “told”, Yefes turned backwards to cover Noach and (by implication) refrained from speaking about it. So looking at the ner chanukah is poel (effects) something in the ko’ach of riyah (vision) of klal Yisroel and singing Hallel is poel something in our ko’ach of dibbur (capacity for speech). I am just wondering aloud if this latest expression of Greek esthetics at the cost of what should be an intrinsic value for them, is not indicative of our drawing close to the ultimate ascendency of the culture of Shem over that of Yavan.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    The book War Against the Weak by Edwin Black details how the American eugenics movement provided a basis for Nazi race theory and also direct support for the theorists.

    From a review posted at Amazon.com:
    From Publishers Weekly
    In the first half of the 20th century, more than 60,000 Americans-poor, uneducated, members of minorities-were forcibly sterilized to prevent them from passing on supposedly defective genes. This policy, called eugenics, was the brainchild of such influential people as Rockefellers, Andrew Carnegie and Margaret Sanger. Black, author of the bestselling IBM and the Holocaust, set out to show “the sad truth of how the scientific rationales that drove killer doctors at Auschwitz were first concocted on Long Island” at the Carnegie Institution’s Cold Spring Harbor complex. Along the way, he offers a detailed and heavily footnoted history that traces eugenics from its inception to America’s eventual, post-WWII retreat from it, complete with stories of the people behind it, their legal battles, their detractors and the tragic stories of their victims. Black’s team of 50 researchers have done an impressive job, and the resulting story is at once shocking and gripping…

  5. L says:

    Thanks for writing about this; I saw it reported in the Jerusalem Post and other outlets last week and had an impromptu class with my high school machshava students because of it. I was able to use it as a springboard for an important discussion about the Torah value of kavod hameis and the kedusha of the human body, as well as the dangers of moral relativism, as displayed by the artist and gallery owner in question.

  6. lacosta says:

    is it no accident that Sweden is a country where one can not safely appear in the street bearing a yarmulke?

  7. mb says:

    Heine later in life lamented his apostasy and wrote accordingly.

    In his majestic essay,Moses, amongst others, he wrote,

    “As of the master-builder, so of his work–the Hebrew people—-I did not speak with sufficient reverence. I see now that the Greeks were only handsome youths, whilst the Jews were always men—powerful, indomitable men—who have fought and suffered on every battlefield of human thought”

  8. Raymond says:

    In reading this article, what occurred to me is the utter shock and bewilderment I felt, when I found out that the music of none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was played right in the nazi extermination camps. To this day, I do not understand how people can, on the one hand, listen to such astonishingly beautiful and uplifting music, and yet in those very moments, commit the most barbarically cruel acts of murder in all of human history. And yet I have met people who know a whole lot about the artistic world, and yet seem to lack all sense of moral decency. As I said, I just do not understand how this can be. The only answer I have come up with so far, is that perhaps what one gets out of listening to a composer like Mozart, depends as much on who the listener is, as it does on the quality of music itself.

    I have to say, though, that while Torah study and living according to its dictates trumps all else, at the same time, life would be so much more gray and dreary, without the arts. True, that art these days is anything but inspiring, but for example one can choose to enjoy art when it was in its more spiritually meaningful ascendancy. For me personally, that means listening to Baroque/Classical music from the 18th century, and reading classical literature mostly from the 19th century. I simply refuse to listen to the garbage that tries to pass itself off as music these days.

  9. DF says:

    I discussed the question above (the relative merits of Athens & Jerusalem) with a friend of mine. We expanded it to include Rome. He mentioned a CD series on this topic, called “Hebrews, Greece, and Rome.” Distilling the matter to its esence, the Hebrews contributed morality to the world, the Greeks contributed beauty, and the Romans, efficiency and function. The ideal society should be comprised of all three. Reasonable men can and do differ on the precise proportion to allocate to all three.

    Re “Yaft Elokim Liyafes”, which we also discussed – we can agree that beauty should be sublimated to morals – the Torah. Otherwise you end up with extremes. One extreme, in which alleged beauty is entirely dominant, is typified by the artist mentioned above. [Though I think the lack of a protest doesnt indicate anything more than indifference.] However, you also end up with the opposite extreme, in which alleged morals trump anything to do with beauty. That can be seen in current charedi Jewry, in which no female form at all is permitted to be seen. Other issues, such as kol isha, or non Jewish music, can also be debated under this framework.

    The interesting thing is, all three of the above civilizations’ contributions have spread to most of the world. But only the Jews are still preaching morality (albeit in various, often conflicting, models.) Of course, it is not only Jews, but often Jews are at the forefront of some cause or another claimed to be the “moral” choice. Whereas Beauty and Efficiency are no longer the province of one nation alone. The problem is, or if you prefer, the question is, how did we come from a nation concerned with such macro earth-straddling topics, to become obsessed with how big the matzah is on Pesach night? That sounds like a challenge which might come from a Reform Rabbi. But it seems to me that if Orthodoxy wants to mature, it has to grapple with it. Chanukah seems like the right time to do so.

    [YA – Our job may be even bigger than you let on. HKBH wants us to grapple with details of law, including how big the matzah should be on Pesach night. Living by law, rather than personal choice alone, is one of our chief contributions to mankind, one that still has to be appreciated. Without law, including its fine details, preaching morality is destined to founder on the shoals of subjectivity. The real challenge is to worry about what one contemporary thinker has called “holy detail,” while still committing ourselves to the important goals that you speak of so eloquently.]

  10. Bob Miller says:

    We don’t have to speculate on the impact moral anarchy has on our life overall, even on the aesthetic and economic parts of it. Things are collapsing all around us. Look candidly at what our society and its leaders are doing today, contrasted with their proper tasks. It’s scary!

  11. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Greece is just beauty: Really? What about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Thucydides, etc, etc?

  12. DF says:

    Dr. Kaplan – Hebrews are more than just morality, too. We are speaking of the most unique contributions. These are lifelong studies being shoehorned into a blog comment. Clearly there’s more.

  13. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    DF: To cite Bernard Williams: ” The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy.”

  14. Raymond says:

    Perhaps Greece is just beauty and not Truth, because even the most lofty thoughts emanating from its greatest thinkers, namely Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, are limited and fallible precisely because they are just human speculations based on their own human foundation, in sharp contrast to Torah-true thinkers, whose ideas always have to answer to, and be consistent with, their ultimately Divine Source which is G-d’s Torah.

  15. DF says:

    Dr. Kaplan – and the first Google hit I saw produced this: Beauty, Love & Art: The Legacy of Ancient Greece. (A lecture from the Professor of Classics of New York University.) I would not presume to debate you in this area, but
    again, I mentioned only what I understand to be the most unique contribution, by no means the only contribution.

  16. dr. bill says:

    Raymond, what you characterize as Greek versus Torah-true is a great deal more complex. I suggest you listen to Prof. Hayes’s Tikvah lecture, who gives an excellent overview of how the rabbis of the Talmud dealt with Greek conceptions of law, developing a much more sophisticated, brilliant and innovative approach.

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