Judaism and Greek Culture

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Adapted and translated by Mark Smilowitz

In general, we tend to view Greek culture as corrupt and sinful. Traditionally, Judaism and the Torah have waged war against it in full fury. What is the argument about? What is the basis of this war?

One formulation is that we argue about the unity of God. We believe in monotheism, and they believed in polytheism. This dispute is not merely a quantitative one, a question of one or many. It is a qualitative dispute, about how to worship, and how to attain holiness and purity. However, there was a tendency among Greek philosophers to believe in one God. Evidently, though monotheism is one aspect of the argument, the argument goes far beyond this lone issue.

A different formulation of the argument focuses upon the subject of aesthetics. Judaism opposes the Greek notion of the supremacy of beauty and aesthetics. In a word, Judaism rejects the holiness of beauty and embraces the beauty of holiness. To the Greeks, even within their lofty system of ethics, concern with aesthetics dominates. But this still is not the primary focus of dispute.

Another aspect of the dispute is the role of the intellect. The Greeks emphasized the intellect and negated emotion. They favored the cold mind over the warmth and depth of the heart. The Kuzari, in the fourth section, contrasts the closeness and warmth of the God of Abraham to the distance and remoteness of the God of Aristotle. To this day, especially within Chassidut, there are those who see intellect versus emotion as the main dispute between secular society and religion. However, this view of the dispute is inaccurate, for as Nietzsche points out, there were two strains of thought in Greek philosophy: the Apollonian, which focused on the intellect, and the Dionysian, which emphasized passion and emotion. Apparently, even among the Greeks, there existed non-rationalistic approaches.

A different view of the dispute pits intellect against will. Intellect is static; it never ventures beyond the internal world of the mind. Will, on the other hand, is a desire to do. It stems from a thought, but translates into action. Whereas the Greeks emphasized thought and understanding, Judaism focuses on will and action, the dynamic of doing. "Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his wisdom will not endure" (Avot 3:12).

All of these points are true, but each one is only a small part of a larger picture. In general, it is difficult to talk of Greek culture because it was so diverse, but two characteristics stand out.

A. The Greeks believed that existence in its totality is comprehensible and conquerable. The universe contains no mystery, reflects no greater power. Man can master all creation. Today's conception of mastery is different; we think of dominating the world in the physical sense, to harness the universe's power and use it to produce. But the Greek conception of mastery meant domination through conceptualization and categorization, fitting the universe into the confines of cognition. Their purpose was understanding purely for the sake of understanding.

The Greeks asserted that the task of mastering the world was achievable. This meant that there was nothing in the universe beyond comprehension. The Greeks were forced to believe that the cosmos embodied order and beauty, because order allows understanding. Everything in the universe has its exact place, and thus Man may decipher the laws of nature.

To summarize, the Greek outlook on the universe was:

1. That which is revealed and perceptible is all there is.

2. All is within Man's grasp to understand.

3. Creation contains law and order, harmony and beauty, which give Man the ability to conquer and dominate the universe with his intellect.

B. The second pillar of Greek culture was the centrality of Man in the universe. Sophocles' Antigone is a song of praise to Mankind whose actions raise it above nature. The Greeks studied nature from an anthropocentric viewpoint; nature existed only as it related to Man. Although from Socrates and on, the study of nature shifted to viewing nature as an independent entity with its own internal workings, nevertheless, Man remained at the center of all, and he received most of the attention.

These two aspects of Greek culture present Man against nature as the ruler against the conquered, Man enveloping creation, standing apart from it and distinct from it. The Greeks placed intellect and beauty at the center of their thought so that they could grasp, capture, and control the world. Given the cosmological order, and the intellect within Man, Man was aptly empowered to extend his control over the universe. In sum, the essence of Greek culture was Man grasping and controlling the universe; all other factors which characterized Greek culture were merely outgrowths of this one point.

This principle of Man controlling the universe is also found within Judaism. "You have placed all under his feet" (Tehillim 8:7). Is this value of Greek culture, Man's mastery and power over creation, completely invalid, or is it redeemable? The Talmud chastises one who neglects the study of astronomy (Shabbat 75a). And the Bible declares, "Not for desolation was [the world] conceived, but for habitation it was created" (Isaia 45:18). So why did our forefathers fight for the destruction of Greek culture?

There is evil which is pure evil, and must be totally uprooted from the world. There is also evil which presents partial truth as if it were the whole truth. The Greek viewpoint presents only half the picture as if it were complete, and here lies the root of its villainy.

Judaism places Man at the center of creation as one who dominates the world, but both Man and his world are null and void in the presence of God and His universe, before the hidden and secret Being, in the face of He who remains unrevealed to our eyes. Religious Man experiences humility and insignificance in front of creation, both in the universe's grandeur and in its minutiae. Maimonides teaches that we can learn love and fear of God through observing nature. That technique is not only a strategy toward loving the Creator, but a way to view our own environment. Do we feel domination and mastery over all, or insignificance and meagerness in a world shrouded in mystery? Paradoxically, the Torah wants Man to work on nature and improve it, to conquer the earth and understand it, but at the same time to perceive the world in its hidden and obscure state, thus maintaining Man's lowliness and humility.

The Greek stance was immoral not in and of itself, but rather in the priorities it set. Greek values were not completely wicked; rather, they were flawed, incomplete, and imbalanced, to such a degree that they became totally corrupt. The dominion of Man and his mastery over nature can be part of worship of the Creator, but Man's greatness can become so central that it becomes a religion in itself. Toynbee holds humanism as Greece's central iniquity, seeing Man as the sole center of the universe, as a god of the cosmos. The problem with Greece was not the belief in multiple deities, but rather the deification of Man.

The dispute between Judaism and Greek culture is not limited to these two societies. The same dispute exists between all religious goals and cultural goals. Culture aims to supply Man with all his needs - from the physical to the spiritual to the emotional. It sees the world in Man and not Man in the world. It constricts all life and reality into an existence that is both conquerable and controllable.

Judaism demands from those who inhabit this world that the center of all reality be the Creator, and we are here to serve Him. All is dependent upon Him, secondary to Him, and there would be no existence without Him. All of the power we exert the world is for His sake, and it is from Hashem alone that we draw our life and our strength.

(Originally delivered on Chanuka, 1974.)