Things to Thank the Maccabees For

Over the years that I’ve been blogging, I noticed a number of ways in which Jewish and Hellenic thought differ. Not just difference of philosophy — differences even more fundamental than philosophy. Ideas that conflicting schools of thought that belong to the same culture rarely argue. The things people raised in each culture take for granted.

I thought in honor of  Chanukah, I would construct a list. Aside from discussion and argument over the items I listed, I invite others to add to it.


(This doesn’t appear in my blog; it’s just too central to Judaism to ignore. But “Hashem and Morality”  discusses how monotheism plus the notion of spiritual progress, discussed next, combine to give a possible definition for morality.)

The notion that there is a Creator wasn’t alien to Hellenic culture, Plato taught that He took eternal matter and made the universe we have around us. Aristotle speaks of the First Cause and the Unmoved Mover.

What Judaism gave the west was the notion that this implied something about reality now. That the events around us can’t be pinned on capricious and petty acts of gods who are portrayed as powerful but often spoiled people.

Without the notion of the universe being the product of plan and thought, science never would have gotten off the ground.

It also implies life has purpose.


In the Timeaas (36c-d) Plato concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

Aristotle thought that time was a quality of change. Not that things change in time, but that change and motion have a property, the time in which they occur.

Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic.

But this mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. This acceptance is an accomplishment of the Maccabean revolution against the Greek mindset. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

(Judaism simultaneously embraces a cyclic view of time. As the Hagaddah phrases the purpose of the seder, “A person is obligated to see himself as though he himself came out of Egypt.” Every Shavuos we are to accept the Torah anew. Our holidays not only repeat the cycle of the Exodus, they are tied to agricultural events and thereby the cycle of seasons. The holiday is both reliving the Sukkos of the desert as well as celebrating bringing in our crops. Time is like a spiral staircase, we revisit the same things, but each time at the next stage in a progression.)

The notion of nature being designed led to the start of science, and the notion of progress led to the accumulation of technology.

But more importantly, both are necessary components to finding meaning and purpose in one’s existence.


(By which I mean the middah and mental attitude, not halachic ritual purity.)

The word “polite” comes from the Latin “politus” via the Old English “polit”, to polish. Polish is itself of the same derivation.I think this is a very telling statement about Western Culture. Politeness is about perfecting the surface. It doesn’t demand a change of the self, but putting up the appropriate front for others.

Taharah is also the term used for the purity of a metal — the menorah must be made of zahav tahor (pure gold). Taharah, then, is the lack of adulteration of the mind with prejudices caused by the body. Free to choose when to pursue its physical needs and desires, man can consciously control his relationship to the physical world and the people we encounter in it.

This distinction dates back to Noah, who saw in Yefes an attention to surface matters and thus aesthetics. “Yaft E-lokim leYefes — G-d’s beauty is for Japeth, veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim — and he lives in the tents of Sheim.” Yefes’s son Yavan is the one for whom Ionia was named, Yavan is Hebrew for “Greece”. Yefes sees beauty, Sheim develops an internal G-dliness.

With the taharah mindset, it’s not just about behaving properly, it’s about finding improper motives in the mix and trying to eliminate them. Thus, we don’t look for proper behavior, but look to develop core values which are manifest in that behavior.

Judaism looks to create ba’alei chessed, people who relate to this world primarily in terms of its opportunities to give and share with others. Not to simply be polite and act inoffensively. Which doesn’t quite work; backstabbing while smiling and using just the implications is a feature of “polite society”. But to actually have a relationship with the other requires a soul that is pure.


Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the former, that roads are built to allow people and goods to travel from one center to another.

However, historically speaking, it’s usually the reverse. Medina, in Saudi Arabia, grew from the crossroads of trading routes. Canaan was at the crossroads of three continents, and its very name comes from the word for “traders”. This is why the Israel of Na”kh was so often crossed by the soldiers of Assyria and Egypt, en route to the other to battle. And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought. Because of the centrality of shipping, New York, Baltimore and Boston all grew around their harbors, and many European cities are on rivers — London, Paris, Budapest, Frankfurt, etc…

This is illustrative of a basic issue of perception, one which may not be the most central to Judaism, is perhaps most fundamental. It shapes the framework in which Jewish tradition looks at the world and frames its questions and answers.

Western Thought is based around the notion of “things”, devarim in the biblical sense — davar as object, diberah as statement or idea. These are primary, and the relationships between them are seen as a consequence of the essence of those objects.

Our tradition seems to pretty clearly be based on the idea that “cities are defined by their roads”, in other words, that the essence of an object is in how it relates to others. This is very much related to what I wrote above about taharah. A person is the sum of his relationships, they aren’t surface matters. And therefore, the word “boneh” means both “is building” and “builder”. While someone is building, he is a builder. The difference between a present tense verbs and active participles (a builder, a fisher, a watcher, a guard, a guide, etc..) is not meaningful from this perspective.

Aristotle catalogues. He divides a subject into subtopics, and those subtopics even further, until one is down to the individual fact. Greek thought was focused on reductionism. To understand a phenomenon, break it down into smaller pieces, and try to understand each piece. This is typical of the Yefetic perspective.

In contrast, look how Rav Yehudah haNasi redacted the first mishnah. The beginning of the mishnah could have said that the time for evening shema is from sunset until 1/3 the night. But instead it uses referents involving kehunah, taharah and ashmores. This is not to confuse the issue, but because from the Semitic perspective the key to understanding one mitzvah is from its connections to everything else.


And from the notion of holism and a network view of reality, we get a totally different perspective on logic.

The West never formalized the notion of reality having gray areas. For example, the question of whether a ball is red gets fuzzy around the edges of the notion of red. Add just an invisible tincture of blue, and it’s still red. Keep on adding blue, and at some point it’s clearly purple. But at some point in the middle, it’s “sort of red”. Classical logic has no way to describe that “sort of”.Since Aristotle’s day, western logic has had two basic rules:

The Law of Contradiction: Something can never be both true and false. From this law, we have the reductio ad absurdum; we can assume something is true if denying it leads to a contradiction.

The Law of Excluded Middle: Something is either true or false, not neither.

These seem so self-evident to us, one wonders how other positions could exist. However, had we grown up in the Far East, we wouldn’t be so Yefetic.

In a perspective that focuses on connections, there is no isolated fact. Therefore, many things Yefes would consider a single yes/no question are complex, shaded, and nuanced to Sheim.

Think how badly the logic of Aristotle or Boole occlude “fuzzy logic” issues, like the difference between “John isn’t tall” and “John is short” where John is of roughly average height.

And how many human realities involve ambivalence and dialectic, our ability to embrace conflicting viewpoints simultaneously emotionally and even rationally, despite the usability of the Law of Contradiction for human-scale physical events?

We frequently feel both joy and sorrow over an event — because we relate to it in multiple ways. The talmud‘s example is finding out one is rich, because of the death of a wealthy but beloved parents.

Human reality is dialectic on the intellectual plane as well. To cite one case from Rabbi JB Soloveitchik’s writings, is it not true that “Society exists to serve its members” and yet “A person’s highest calling is to benefit that society”?

By divorcing human experience from reductionism, Judaism gave the west the tools for exploring our own reactions.

None of which would have been preserved had the Maccabees lost the war.

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  1. I appreciate your ideas on the cognitive dimensions of Jewish vs. Hellenic thought. I have had similar ideas. But your connection of “polite” to “polish” is strange to me. I have always thought that it comes from “polis”, city. One is polite in a society of civilized people. Polish could also be related to polis in that you polish civilized artifacts used in civilized society.

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