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The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Rachel Bat Asher

Hellenism's Value and Its Rectification via Judaism

The turning point in Hellenist culture came when classic paganism became a general idea. This happened when they stripped paganism of its religious content and transformed it into a cluster of ideas - purposive, active forces became laws and domains.


Rabbi Ze'ev Sultanowitz

1. Analytic Thinking
2. "Monistic" Thinking
3. The Benefit of the Analytic Approach
4. Vision and Repentance

Analytic Thinking
With the rise of Hellenism, branches of art, science, and everything we refer to as leisure culture, were freed of their subordination to religion and achieved independence for the first time in the history of ancient culture. In other words, a venue for creative spiritual expression was created for man, and even society as a whole, outside of the framework of religion. This is a matter of great importance regarding the period under discussion, and all the more so for our own.

Yet, it is worth considering this subject from an additional angle. How did it happen? What mold of thinking, of relating to the world, to being, to man, was responsible for this profound change? This matter is most characteristic of Greek, and thereafter Hellenist and Roman culture, and it continues to make itself felt to this day. A kind of upheaval took place here which was caused by a mode of thinking unique to the Greeks. And this upheaval was responsible for transforming these same branches of creativity and culture into an independent entity. Let us call this by its modern name - "analytic thinking," i.e., thought which discerns and separates.

We live in a multifarious world. Our emotions, our feelings, our entire interrelationship with this reality, is complex, and even complicated. Pagan thought essentially represents a kind of outlook which prefers the intervention of higher forces in every possible sphere and matter. Therefore, all aspects of living - agriculture, seafaring, trade, war, government - all of these had to be wrought through the various pagan forces. These forces alone were capable of providing abundant crops, safe journeys, military victories, or effective government.

We thus find that the important ancient cultures in Aram Naharaim - Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Ashurian, Hittitian - both replaced and cooperated with one another. We find the same to be true of ancient Egyptian culture, not to mention those of ancient India and China. According to their outlook, there is nothing in the world divorced from the intervention of the gods.

Though they came later, the Greeks asserted that wisdom originates in the East. That is, as far as they were concerned, wisdom, the accomplishments of culture, mathematics, astronomy - all of these things already existed in the East. Writing, too, for example, came from the East. And though the Greeks were pagan in heart and soul, they nevertheless succeeded in producing the phenomenon know as science - the discipline of separating and differentiating.

Let us take, for example, the forest. From a pagan perspective, the forest contains all sorts of demons and semi-demons. Yet there exists a scientific standpoint as well, which concerns itself with matters such as the quantity of trees in the forest, the forest's radius, the types of trees in it. None of this relates to religion. The same forest possess aesthetic value, it inspires an appreciation for beauty: rays of light dance on the treetops, water flows from a spring covered by verdant foliage.

Thus, not all at once of course, something of the national cultural character gave rise to the analytic approach which separates and differentiates between fields, and as a result philosophy was born. A science arose which essentially focused on drawing distinctions between concepts. A scientific, analytic manner of thinking arose. In all complex and complicated areas of life a process of untangling the knots began; every matter was identified, separated, and placed in its own domain, with no mixing of domains. They began to define problems and solutions from a conceptual standpoint.

It is no secret that there are problems in the world. There are problems obtaining food and clothing, problems building houses and healing the sick. People who succeed in obtaining their basic needs strive to build better and more beautiful homes, to design more attractive clothing and prepare more delicious foods.

Humanity faces problems relating to the organization of economy, society, defense, etc. And every capable person strives to offer practice solutions to these problems. However, examining problems and solutions that relate to the thought process itself is a new domain, and it is upon this which philosophy sets its sights.

This is a new phenomenon. One does not even find it in those ancient cultures that were very developed. Though there were beginnings of mathematics and astronomy, not to mention art, architecture, government, and law, all this was limited to the realm of in practice. That is, solutions were offered to actual problems experienced by man. Yet, concepts and ideas belonged entirely to the realm of paganism. They came entirely, or essentially, from the religious domain.

Greek culture created something new: a new way of approaching existence which does not negate religion but identifies it as one field among many. There is a field of science, a field of ethics, a field of aesthetics, and essentially they do not intermingle. If such an intermingling takes place, it is seen as a problem which must be resolved. A very acute intellect is called upon to separate between the mixed fields and demonstrate a manner whereby it is possible to relate to each idea according to its own essence.

What we have here is a unprecedented advance in the study of human thinking and approach. It is not the work of a single person; it stems from the very depths of this historical entity known as Hellenism. Of course, with the passage of time, after approximately 2,500 years of development, analytic thinking enjoys a most prominent place even in modern culture.

And what about the practical achievements of ancient Greek culture? In fact, though they were great, they did not surpass the practical achievements of other cultures - neither the pyramids nor the great cities of the world. The seven wonders of the world which the Greeks enumerated generally were not in Greece at all, but in the ancient East. These were wonders of the world from their own standpoint. They were very impressed by other cultures. Yes, Greek culture was one of the more developed, important, and outstanding cultures from the standpoint of material achievement, but it was not the greatest.

From the standpoint of intellectual achievement, Greek culture stands out above all the other cultures. It goes one step further than all of the others in developing the analytic approach, an approach which lays the foundation for distinguishing between various branches of study or knowledge in human society - e.g., religion, science, ethics, and arts.

It should be emphasized that it was not the philosophers who created this analytic approach. Rather, philosophy itself was one of the refined and abstract expressions of the intuitive, spiritual world view which stemmed from the depths of Hellenism. An encompassing look at popular Greek culture from a social perspective reveals that, surprisingly, these same cultural institutions became independent, and did not necessarily clash with religion. They achieved independence and enjoyed a standing and position of their own.

For example, the Greeks were able to cultivate mythological content for drama without turning the stage into a place of worship. What resulted was no more than a dramatic performance which made use of religious subject matter in the same manner it made use of folklore or politics.

In Aristophanes' well-known comedy "The Clouds," he mocks the politicians of Athens, yet nobody would ever think that a veritable political discussion was taking place here on the stage. This is also true of great tragedies like "Oedipus the King" and Sophocles' "Antigone." Here, too, nobody would ever conceive that some kind of worship is taking place, despite the fact that the materials were mythological.

In other words, this mode of thinking came into being from the depths of Greek culture. This is a formidable accomplishment. Let us not disparage it. It contains something important, true, and effective. Analytic thought is unique to Hellenism, and in it lies Hellenism's great charm and penetrating power, forces that would lay the foundation for new cultures in both the Christian and Islamic worlds. Till this very day we sense that analytical thinking holds the key to many doors.

"Monistic" Thinking
The principle of analytic thought did not contradict Judaism entirely; however, somewhere, there was conflict in this arena as well. In Hellenism, paganism was seen as a general idea, not just a religious matter. Multiplicity was accepted as a solution to something. Paganism underwent a purging, and instead of being only a religious heritage, it became a mold of thinking.

Pagan man grasped the forces of nature as separate from one another. This was an attempt to coordinate some sort of reconciliation between them (for example, by way of a familial bond, the patronage of one god over others). At any rate, the main thing is that these forces are separate and independent. As long as all this remained in the religious realm - above man, amenable to description and depiction but not to reason - it was classic paganism.

The turning point in Hellenist culture came when classic paganism became a general idea. This happened when they stripped paganism of its religious content and transformed it into a cluster of ideas - purposive, active forces became laws and domains. Reason intervened here in order to properly define these forces, not merely in order to describe them or tell us about them.

In other words, in the normal pagan mold, the multiplicity in nature which is absorbed directly by the senses remained in the religious domain alone, with all of the implications of this. In Greek culture, however, this multiplicity became an impetus to an inclusive worldview with formidable intellectual creativity for man: the creation of concepts, ideas, and a capacity to deal with existence in a new manner, through research, through thinking, defining, and finally, of course, in actual practice.

It may be asserted, then, that Hellenism constituted the height of paganism. True, to some people it seemed that Hellenism had knocked the feet out from under paganism, for it had restricted it to the realm of religion alone. However, in truth, what we have here is the apex of an idea. Paganism has secured a place for itself within the domain of human thought as well.

At first glance, Judaism stands at the opposite extreme, furthest from the pure analytic approach. Judaism's foremost creed is God's oneness, the antithesis of multiplicity. Judaism is an intransigently monistic approach, and it is no coincidence that already at this early point in history it was termed "monotheism." This, in a sense, is Judaism's central message. Certainly this is the way it appeared to other nations and cultures, especially to the Greeks.

At that time a fierce cultural conflict raged between these two worldviews, Judaism's oneness verses Greece's multiplicity. This great struggle has not ceased to this day. Ostensibly, however, there was a kind of compromise in the form of Christianity, and another compromise in the form of Islam, and all sorts of interim compromises within these large systems themselves.

The monistic approach, then, stands at the opposite extreme, and it possesses exceptional mental power. Compared to analytic thinking, the message of oneness is stimulating. It is most stimulating, of course, if it does not ignore the achievements of analytic thinking, for the Jewish monistic approach does not make any sweeping declaration that everything is one. It does not reject the familiar, tangible multiplicity received by our senses. It does not contradict the lofty idea of acute thinking which knows how to differentiate between matters, which is perfectly content with distinguishing between matters. And despite this, it carries a message of oneness. This is a conceptual challenge which cannot be met by analytic thinking. It is possible to wage war upon the monistic approach, it is possible to confront it, but it is impossible to do away with it.

The struggle between these two fundamental worldviews has numerous and varied implications in the fields of ethics and society, and in relation to man and nature. Of course, it also has religious implications. It suddenly became apparent that when we put aside all of the incidental elements which color the various cultures, the entire world fits in somewhere between these two worldviews.

The Benefit of the Analytic Approach
Before discussing the underlying principle of the monistic approach, we ought to underscore the great benefit of the analytic approach. For example, the "theory of organization" is founded firstly upon classification, which of course consists of discernment, and then structure. After discernment and separation, the particulars must be organized into a single structure which avails our purpose. It is no wonder that what was once called the "theory of organization" (torat ha-irgun) is today known as "logistics," from the word "logic". This is one of the outstanding accomplishments of Greek thinking: formal logic. Formal logic means classifying according to patent criteria: size, color, weight, benefit, etc. We say: A is not B. Why is A not B? In what manner is A different than B? This is logic. In this sense, Greek thinking was very beneficial.

At times, monistic thinking can even be damaging, because it is liable to cause a blurring which on a superficial level appears or be unity. (This explains why the sages placed the "havdalah" text in the "noten ha-da'at" blessing, for "if there is no da'at [understanding], whence differentiation?" See JT Berachot 5:2) And perhaps it is no coincidence that the Oral Torah grew so significantly precisely when Judaism met the analytic approach and made use of it. In fact, we continue to make good use of it today, possibly even better than our teachers.

This procedure, discerning and organizing information into various categories, was warmly received and was put to work in rendering legal judgments. One of the classic expressions of analytic thinking in Judaism is the monumental legal code "Mishneh Torah," which is constructed entirely upon the laws of organization: categorization, generalization, structure, definition of purposes, and examples. And this same structure is repeated in every matter, allowing for no exceptions or deviations.

It makes sense, then, that this matter was assimilated and yielded fruits in the days of the Second Temple. Non-analytic logic - i.e., prophetic or, as R' David Cohen ("the Nazir") calls it in "allegoric" logic - gives the impression of having disappeared at that time. Of course, prophecy did not really disappear at that time, rather, it began operating in an overt fashion, "behind the scenes," and was henceforth less salient in Torah study.

Vision and Repentance
The real question is, where do we find the monistic element today, in a world so dominated by the analytic approach? To answer this, we must turn our attention to the exact point of conflict. Where is analytic thinking - which is not limited to the field of law or logic alone, but rather constitutes a world view - lacking? Where is the Jewish monistic principle called for?

One notion by virtue of which Judaism too played an important part in the fashioning of modern culture is the concept of "vision." What sort of future might we hope for according to the Greek scientific outlook? Answer: a future that is quantitatively better. A future in which man knows more, in which he is able to solve more problems by separating mixed domains into distinct categories. That is, if we accept the viewpoint that the entire world is dividable into separate domains, separate subjects, we need only distinguish between them in order to better adapt ourselves to it and suffer less.

By way of illustration, a person who enters a room for the first time and is not yet acquainted with its arrangement is likely to bump into things and stumble. However, when he becomes accustomed to the room, he manages just fine. Essentially, this approach asserts that the world is already complete and organized, and that even human beings are complete and organized. Advancement only takes place quantitatively, in knowledge and recognition, for the purpose of adaptation.

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