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On Faith: A small bit of light pushes away darkness

December 16, 2011|By Rabbi Mark S. Miller

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.

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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.

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