A Chanukah debate.
We do not sing the entire Ma’oz tzur in this synagogue. Like many other Jews, we sing only the first stanza. But Ma’oz tzur is considerably longer; it has five stanzas. Let us have a look at the last one. p. 378 in our Prayerbook.
When the Greeks were gathered round in the Maccabean days,
broke my towers to the ground spoilt the oil used for Your praise.
Your sign guided our fate, one day’s oil lasted for eight
Our wise men established then
this festival we celebrate.
If you are Greek or of Greek origin, this is not a nice reading… And you know, there is a sixth stanza, which is not included in our prayerbook (neither in others) because it is not, how can I put it, so Greece-friendly. I will read the translation so you’ll have an idea.
O, bare Your holy arm and bring the end [of] salvation.
Wreak vengeance upon the wicked nation,
For deliverance has too long been delayed;
And the evil days are endless.
O Reject the enemy into the shadows of idolatry.
It almost calls for perpetual war against the Greeks! It is problematic, and we understand why it is omitted in so many prayerbooks (Orthodox and Reform). It does not encourage peace in the nations!
But what’s the problem with Greece? These are the questions that two very important Rabbis are debating these years.
Meir Soloveitchik and Marc Angel are both Americans. Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik is currently the senior Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York. He is the first Ashkenazi Rabbi in the history of that very old Sephardi synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States of America. Marc Angel was on the same pulpit until 2007. He is a predecessor of Meir Soloveitchik.
Same pulpit but different approaches. Let’s see.
In an article published in 2021 in Commentary Magazine, “Hanukkah Unbound” Soloveitchik spoke about the Olympic games, those of today, those of antiquity and those of the Nazi era (1936, Berlin) when the ritual of the Olympic torch was invented. It is a bit shocking, but I double-checked; it’s true, in the history of the Olympic games prior to 1936, there was not such a thing as the relay of the Olympic torch; it is, sadly and unfortunately, a Nazi invention.
Solovetichick then compares the Olympic flame, an exaltation of human power. to the much humbler, smaller flames of the menorah on Hanukah. The Hanuka lights, he explains, affirm that the ultimate source of power is the will of God, not human strength. Meir Soloveitchik sees Ancient Athen and pre-Nazi Germany in a similar light, both places of extraordinary intellectual brilliance and equally lacking morality.
In other words, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, Judaism is incompatible with Greek philosophy and its contemporary versions, be it the Nazi degeneration but also the post-modern, intersectional… whatever it is in vogue today.
Enter Rabbi Marc Angel, one of the predecessors of Soloveithick on the same pulpit. A few weeks ago, Marc Angel published an article, “Hebraism and Hellenism”, on the Conversations website. Rabbi Angel rejects the idea that Greek culture is foreign to Judaism. On the contrary! In the time of the Talmud, Rabbis could read and understand Greek. They taught that Yafet, one of the sons of Moses, was the ancestor of the Greeks. And note that the meaning of the word Yafet is. “beauty” So Shem, our ancestor, the first Semite, and Yafet, the ancestor of the Greeks, are actually brothers. We are the brother of the Greeks, not the enemy!
Mark Angel then goes on to debunk a common preconception. Greek culture is about beauty, spontaneity, and empowerment of the human being, while Judaism is only about obedience to God. According to Rabbi Angel, people who believe in this opposition are wrong. -and guess whom he’s thinking about.
The point is the difference between obedience and observance. Obedience is blind, while the observance is not. The mitzvot and the religious commandments remind us of the moral dimension of our life and of the dignity of human beings, created betselem Elohim in the image of God. If we are assiduous in our observance and confident in our Jewish identity, then there is no reason to fear Greek philosophy or our contemporary culture. The son of Shem (us, the Semitic) can welcome the beauty of Yafet into the tent.
Hebraism and Hellenism to Mark Angel are not antithetical. On the contrary, both worldviews need each other. We need the spirituality of Judaism and the intellectual freedom of Greek culture.
It is easy to see another episode of the ongoing confrontation between Ashkenazi and Sephardi in this debate. Mark Angel’s insight, indeed, is very Sephardi. He is not afraid of the modern world. He does not think that the progress of science will cancel the need of human beings for religion and spirituality. He indeed quotes the Rambam, the medieval Jewish philosopher who was also a doctor (actually, that was his main profession).
On the other hand, Meir Soloveitchik is the scion of a dynasty of Talmud scholars. He comes from a world that the Nazi so-called “racial science” has destroyed. He knows well about the conflict between faith and science. Especially contemporary science, according to which human beings are not completely free to choose according to morality but rather are always under the influence of natural impulses, a combination of chromosomes, and social constructions.
I see the opposition. Yet, if you ask, “Rabbi, who do you think of these two haham, wise, is right? Meir Soloveithcik or Marc Angel? Do we celebrate Chanukah despite the Greek philosophy to show off that we have survived? Or do we celebrate Chanuka, including the celebration, in our tents and in our homes, our Greek -and pagan- friends?
My answer is the very Rabbinic: both are right. My heart is with Soloveitchik, The immensity of hostility that our people faced in history and face today is undeniable. Like in the times of the Greeks, this hostility comes cloaked with the language of universalism. Perhaps we are not asked anymore, “why do you Jews stick to your antiquate superstition and tribal beliefs?” but rather -with the same bad faith “, why do you think that you need a Jewish State? Don’t you trust the brotherhood among the nations to support and defend you?”. So I think Soloveitchik is right in pointing out the hostility to Judaism in large part of contemporary culture. My heart is with him.
But my head is with Marc Angel. I know that the Covenant with the Almighty and the generations before us makes our life meaningful. The mitzvot are a sign of our covenant with God. they are not the reason why we are alive.
I know that intellectual freedom is a precious gift that we enjoy in this part of the world. I know that science is not an enemy of Judaism but can be an ally. And I know that I can be human only by being Jewish — that is moral. And in these days of Chanuka, I not only remember the confrontation with the epigones of the Hellenistic civilisation. I also contemplate the light of the flames that increase day after day and give to me -and I hope to you also- pride of being Jeiwsh and faith in humanity.
Therefore I intellectually agree with Mark Angel, while my heart says that Meir Soloveitchik is right. And I bless the Almighty because Chanuka is also the time for such a passionate, intense debate from which we all Jews can learn, like generations of Jews have done before us.