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From Athens to Jerusalem

By Gafni, Mordechai | Tikkun, November/December 2001 | Go to article overview

From Athens to Jerusalem

Gafni, Mordechai, Tikkun


From Balanced Personality to Passionate Risk-Taker

Matthew Arnold, writing in his celebrated work Culture and Anarchy, suggests that Hebraism and Hellenism are the two essential philosophies of life between which civilized man must choose. For Arnold, Hebraism is primarily a system of obedience to an external source (the Mosaic Law) while Hellenism advocates perfecting the self (as the Greeks did) by expanding our consciousness through culture. Chanukah is the tale of the clash between these two world visions, the clash between the Hebrew Maccabees and the Hellenist Romans. Thus, in the Jewish calendar, Chanukah becomes the time of year when we try to relocate our spiritual direction on the road between Athens and Jerusalem.

Often, as Chanukah approaches, I wonder if I am becoming more of a Hellenist. Am I unconsciously sliding towards becoming a sort of "inverted Marrano," biblical on the outside, Hellenist on the inside? In seeking an answer, as part of my own Chanukah ritual, I try and look at some new dimension of that ancient conflict of ideas.

This year I'm thinking a lot about balance and stability. How many of us at some point in our lives thought of pursuing a new direction but held back for fear of being branded unstable? Balance and stability are certainly important values. However, it may not be irrelevant that their source in Western intellectual history is rooted in ancient Athens and not Jerusalem.

For the Hellenist, the harmonious and balanced personality is the ideal. However, Hellenistic harmony comes from a place of detachment. In the platonic myth the ideal is to "become a spectator to all time and existence." This is certainly not biblical myth. The basic Hebraic posture in the world is passionate involvement in the realness of life (doing, not thinking, as Arnold would say).

The Hellenist seeks eternity. He cannot find it in the world of particulars, which are here today and gone tomorrow. So he searches in the realm of essences, universals, and principles of logic. In their unchanging shadow, he feels the breath of eternity. For the Hellenist, theory is always more important than application, thinking is higher and more pure than doing.

For the Hebrew there is no greater sin than the sin of detachment. The Hebrew requires the full embrace of the concreteness of being. God is in the details. God is in the ferment of our lives.

Biblical wisdom-masters rarely make sweeping universal statements about the nature of reality. They are relatively unconcerned with grand systems and elegant structures of logic. Their vision is almost always of the particular individual and his or her choices. For the Jew, eternity resides in the human encounter with the moment.

The Hebraic worldview-or what I have termed in other writings biblical myth-shapes the way we understand and live our lives in at least three important ways. Deep meditation on these particular dimensions of biblical myth is the spiritual technology of Chanukah.

First, the biblical myth vision of God differs from that of the Hellenist. The biblical God is personal and cares deeply about all of His creatures. Biblical myth prophet Isaiah as well as the talmudic wisdom masters describe a God who is fully engaged and radically empathetic to the joy and pain of his creatures. The Hebrew believes in and experiences a God who cares.

Our God knows our name. Indeed the very designation of God in biblical myth is Hashem-accurately translated as: the name.

When a person dies we recite the Kaddish prayer. The prayer begins with the Aramaic words-"Magnified and exalted be God's name." Biblical myth commentary is aghast. Is theological pronouncement about the magnification of God's name appropriate to the existential pain and confusion of the open grave!? Do we not need to roundly condemn Job's comforters for offering theology instead of solace at their friend's time of sorrow?

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From Athens to Jerusalem


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