On Faith: A small bit of light pushes away darkness

Hanukkah commemorates the collision of two great cultures, the conflict between Hellenism and Judaism. As Jewish people celebrate the 2,176th anniversary of that battle in ancient Judea, we focus on the light of Jerusalem overcoming the dark spirit of Athens.

The Jewish people held fast to the idea of man created in the image of God, against the Greek belief in gods who were created in the image of man. The gods were actors in a celestial soap-opera that mirrored man's lusts, projected his power struggles, and exemplified his foibles.

Promiscuity, philandering, and debauchery were the hallmarks of those who populated Olympus, reflecting man's licentiousness and excess. Like their Greek worshipers, the gods displayed no restraint, self-control, or discipline.

The God of Israel, who inspired the Maccabees, was pure spirit, truth, and righteousness. No other gods existed to rival His power or diminish His authority. He was the source of all goodness and the arbiter of all morality.

Second, Judaism based itself on a reverence for the sanctity of life. Each human being was endowed with unalienable dignity as a bearer of the stamp of God.

Man must not violently impose himself upon another, but treat one another as he would wish to be treated. The Greek society was supported by slavery and the vicious exploitation of human beings. In the Greek world, the strong prevailed and respect for life was not a consideration.

For Judaism, life was significant; for Hellenism, life was disposable. Bloodthirsty mobs thrilled to the barbaric scenes of the arena. A Jewish writer could never say, as did Aristotle, that some human beings are naturally slaves; or as the Stoics said, that the masses are blind fools; or as Plato said, that the bulk of humanity should be in bondage.

Jewish literature is replete with expressions of compassion for the oppressed, sympathy for the downtrodden, and calls to assist those who falter and struggle.

Third, the Greek's highest ideal was physical accomplishment, while the Jewish people's model was morality. In contrast to the Olympic motto, "citius, altius, fortius" — "swifter, higher, and stronger" — the Jewish credo was simply "holier." For the Greeks, that which was externally pleasing was inherently good; for the Jews, that which was inherently good was the measure of meaning. The Greeks exalted the holiness of beauty, while the Jewish people magnified the beauty of holiness.

The ancient battle of Hanukkah animates our own society. Our emphasis on the physical and material, often at the expense of the spiritual and sacred, places us squarely in the Hellenist camp.

Milton Steinberg's observation of ancient Greece could be transposed to our day: "The Greek world had wealth, science, art, and literature. They were not enough. It had no adequate faith and it had too little heart."

His next words are chilling: "It was inevitable that this world would fall into decay … because the intellect and the sense of the aesthetic are not sufficient for man."

We who pride ourselves on our scientific and technological accomplishments should realize that they do not speak to the soul of man and it is the soul that must be addressed.

As Santayana said, "Oh, world, thou choosest not the better part! It is not wisdom to be only wise."

What would the Maccabees say if they were to reappear in our midst? They despised Greece for its spiritual confusion, unbridled materialism, moral corruption, exclusive reliance on reason, sexual indulgence, idealization of war, contempt for the poor and exploitation of the weak.

Would they find in 21st-century America an heir to the Hellenist spirit? Behind the brilliant façade of temples, stadia, gymnasia and sculptures erected in ancient Greece lay a morally degraded culture. Do our magnificent houses of worship, grand buildings and malls camouflage emptiness?

In Jewish tradition, the Greek era is called a time of "darkness," a reference to its unenlightened worldview. The Greeks adhered to low standards in low places. Their guiding principle was the secularization of life by bringing knowledge into it, while the Jewish ideal was the sanctification of life by bringing God into it.

The lights we kindle on Hanukkah are meant to symbolize how a small bit of light can push away a large amount of darkness. Thankfully, the Jewish vision persevered over the once-ubiquitous Greek culture, which today resides only in museums and college courses.

But the spirit of Hellenism is not extinguished. Its darkness pervades our own culture. The fight to magnify the light must be ever engaged anew. Regardless of one's faith, we must all do battle against a culture whose model is ancient Greece.

You don't have to be Jewish to be a Maccabee.

MARK S. MILLER is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.

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