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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays Hanukkah In Our Times

Western Culture – What to Accept and What to Reject

The House of Israel is unlike other nations. Every other nation can replace its culture for another without causing any damage whatsoever to the nation. This is not the case with the Jewish people. Our nation is no nation at all without its Torah.
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1411
Dedicated to the memory of
Rabbi Mordechai Tsemach ben Mazal Tov
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The Exterior, Not the Interior - Rabbi Yosef Toledano

We can find an answer to the question of what to accept and what not to accept from Western, European culture from the Chanukah story. It is written, "When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils" (Shabbat 22a). The calamity in the days of Mathitiahu (Mattathias) was that the spirit of Greece and its culture penetrated the Temple’s sanctuary, the inner area, and defiled all of the oils there. In other words, it rendered impure the pure oil of the spirit if Israel.

This is what lay at the root of the Hasmonean struggle. The Greeks, and their Hellenist collaborators, sought to replace the Torah tradition with Greek culture. They reasoned that, with all due respect to tradition, the Jewish people need not resist the Greek demands to impose their "advanced" culture on Israel. In their opinion, this was an ordinary war of cultures, for which it was not worth endangering the existence of the Jewish people and losing the many benefits that the Greek Empire likely to grant them.

The Hasmoneans, however, claimed that there was a mistake here regarding the essential nature of the Jewish people. The House of Israel is unlike other nations. Every other nation can replace its culture for another without causing any damage whatsoever to the nation. This is not the case with the Jewish people. Our nation is no nation at all without its Torah.

If ever the Torah should cease to exist amongst the Jews, there will not merely remain a void that can be filled with other content; rather, if "there is no water in it, there are snakes and scorpions in it" (see Genesis 37:23). The absence of Torah causes irreversible damage, and without Torah Israel deteriorates into corruption and calamity more than any other nation. This is true even if the most advanced of cultures is adopted. Therefore, Israel’s struggle with the Greeks is not a cultural war; it is a struggle for existence, a spiritual war of life or death.

True, there are things that can be taken from other cultures, for the sages teach, "The beauty of Japheth shall dwell in the tents of Shem" (Megillah 9). But this is only "in the tents," the outer area; it is not true regarding the Sanctuary, which constitutes the inner realm. Here, no foreigner may enter; here the spirit of Shem, Israel, must be preserved in purity.

In science and technology it is permitted to evoke the wisdom of the nations – "There is wisdom amongst the nations" (Eicha Rabba 2). This, however, is not true when it comes to the inner realm of the Torah of Israel, its ethics, its worldview. Here, the culture and genius of other nations can cause extreme damage. The foundations of their spiritual world are completely different than ours and they are dangerous to the spirit of Israel. Indeed, the sages have warned us to beware of Greek wisdom.

"God enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant" (Genesis 9:27). The sages of the Midrash say, "Even though…Koresh, a descendent of Japheth, built the Second Temple, the Divine Presence did not dwell therein" (Bereshit Rabba 36). True there was beauty (the name "Japheth" is related to the word "yofi," which means beauty), but the Divine Presence was absent. And where did the Divine Presence dwell? In the First Temple, which was built by King Solomon, who was of the offspring of Shem. Divine domicile and sanctity belong to the Nation of Israel alone.


Finding the Correct Balance – Rabbi Shlomo ben Eliyahu

On the verse, "God enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be their servant" the sages comment, "The beauty of Japheth shall dwell in the tents [i.e., the Synagogues] of Shem." This is a reference to artwork and decoration taken from Greek culture. From here we learn that it is possible to take from and make use of elements from a culture other than our own.

However, if one wishes to learn from Western culture, he should keep in mind that our existence as Jews hinges on a correct balance in every detail of life. We must learn from the failure of Elisha ben Avuya and the success of Rabbi Meir. The Jerusalem Talmud says that when Elisha ben Abuya got up from his studies, his students saw "books on Greek wisdom hanging out of his pocket." Elisha ben Avuya studied books from the enlightened culture of his day, and in the end he abandoned the Torah.

By contrast, regarding his student, Rabbi Meir baal HaNes, we are told, "He found a pomegranate; he ate its fruit and threw away its peel." Rabbi Meir learned from Elisha ben Abuya, but he knew how to distinguish between the desirable and undesirable portions. May we merit following in the path of Rabbi Meir and knowing how to pick out the good parts of Western culture.

I cannot forget a certain cultural eye-opener I had as a young rabbi, fresh out of yeshiva. I was asked to participate in a certain funeral service, but all of those who eulogized before me spoke about the beauty of the deceased, her wonderful hair, and good taste in clothing. When it came my turn, I did not know what to say. In a society that judges people according to their body and their money, it is very difficult to speak about the spirit and the soul.

Western culture has glorified the material aspect of existence to the extreme, so that a person is judged according to his outward appearance or his bank account. Sadly, this manner of thinking has slowly penetrated all layers of the community, while the spirit of sanctity and purity of spirit that stems from our culture, the Jewish sources, gets pushed aside.

The key to absorbing the desirable parts of western culture is a correct balance between our approach to the material and to the spiritual aspects of existence. The secret of this balance is revealed to us by the rabbis in each generation, who know how to place a filter and partition before the culture of the exterior. In this manner we will merit following in the path of Rabbi Meir who "found a pomegranate. He ate its fruit and threw away its peel."
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