Is Beauty A Jewish Virtue?
The Story Of Hanukkah: Was The Clash Between Judaism And Hellenism Inevitable?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
On Hanukkah, we celebrate the fact that many hundreds of years ago, the Maccabees defeated the forces of Antiochus, and liberated Israel from Greek rule. And this victory wasn’t just about political independence – it was also about religious freedom. The Greeks had outlawed many Jewish practices, and actively tried to replace Judaism with Hellenism and its worship of beauty. By defeating the Greeks, the Maccabees ended this persecution and allowed the Jewish people to return to Judaism.
The story of Hanukkah leaves us with a question many of us may not have considered: was the clash between Judaism and Hellenism inevitable? Are they completely incompatible, to the point that the Jews would have to either assimilate or revolt? And, if that’s the case, what about those of us who are faithful Jews, who also appreciate beauty and aesthetics? Are we living a contradiction?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he analyzes a fascinating story recorded in the Talmud about a different encounter between Jews and Greeks, one which ends much more peacefully than the story of Hanukkah. This story may hold the key to understanding the right way for Judaism and Hellenism to interact – and where, if anywhere, the ideas of Hellenism can fit in Jewish life.
What if there were two Hanukkah's? We only celebrate one of them, of course, but what if there were two?
There are two Pesach's, as it were; there is a holiday that we call Pesach Sheni, the second Pesach, that takes place 30 days after the first Pesach. In case you were tameh, impure, and you couldn't bring Pesach offering during the first Pesach, you can bring it 30 days later during the second Pesach.
Is there a second Hanukkah? It turns out that the Gemara in Yoma speaks of an event that takes place exactly 30 days after Hanukkah. An event that sounds suspiciously like Hanukkah, a meeting between Greeks and Jews.
Are There Two Hanukkah Stories?
What takes place in that event is not a war, as we have in the actual Hanukkah, but something else entirely. I want to suggest to you that the event which the Gemara talks about in Yoma is a kind of prototype for Hanukkah.
In a way, it is the real Hanukkah and the Hanukkahthat we celebrate is just an approximation of it, a Hanukkah Sheni, 30 days earlier.
The Gemara tells us a story. It gets to the story because it is debating an issue: is a kohen allowed to wear the bigdei kehunah outside of the beit hamikdash?
So the Gemara cites an incident in which Shimon Hatzadik, one of the greatest leaders of the generation, who happened to be kohen gadol, when he wore bigdei kehunah outside the beit hamikdash and this is the story: B’esrim v'chamisha b'Tevet, on the 25th day of Tevet, that day is known as Yom Har Grizim hu, the day of the Mount of Grizim. Mount Grizim is where enemies of the Jews, known as Cuthim, lives; and the Cuthim were plotting to destroy the temple.
Anyway, the Gemara says, this day, Yom Har Grizim, is a holiday of sorts. It is the day that the Cuthim tried to get permission to destroy our Temple from Alexander of Macedon and provisionally, Alexander the Great gave them permission to do so.
Bou v'hodiu l'Shimon Hatzadik, they came and told Shimon Hatzadik that Alexander had permitted the destruction of the Temple. Umah asah? What did he do? Lavash bigdei kehunah, he put on the clothes of the kohen gadol, v'netatef bigdei kehunah, wrapping himself in these clothes, umiyakirei Yisrael imo, and he went out with a delegation of other Jews to meet Alexander.
V'avukot shel or beyadeihen, and as they went out to greet Alexander, they were clutching torches, torches of light. V'chol halaylah halalu, and all night long, holchim mitzad zeh v’halalu holchim mitzad zeh, these men in this delegation, Shimon Hatzadik with these other elders, went out holding these torches ad sha’alah amud hashachar, until the morning came, until dawn came.
Keiven shaalah amud hashachar, once dawn came, Alexander saw them coming from afar and asked the Cuthim, the enemies of Jews, mi halalu, “Who are these people approaching us?” Amru lo, the Cuthim said, Yehudim shemardu becha, “They are Jews who are rebelling against you, sire.”
Keiven shehigia leAntipatras zarchah chamah, as they reached a place called Antipatras, the sun came out in all of its glory. Upagu zeh bezeh, and in full daylight, the delegation led by Shimon Hatzadik met up with Alexander of Macedon. Keiven shera’ah l’Shimon HaTzadik, as Alexander of Macedon saw Shimon Hatzadik, the kohen gadol, approach, yarad mimerkavto v'hishtachah lefanav, he got down from off of his chariot and bowed down before Shimon Hatzadik.
Amru lo, the other Greeks that were with Alexander said to him, melech gadol kamotcha, such a great king as you, yishtachaveh leYehudi zeh, “What are you doing bowing down to this Jew?” Alexander said to them, “Every time I go out victorious in war I see a vision, an apparition of this man. He is always going before me in battle. Now I am going to bow before him.”
Alexander said to Shimon Hatzadik's delegation, lamah batem, “Why did you come?” Amru, they said, efshar bayit shemitpalelim bo aleicha va'al malchutcha shelo techarev, “Could it be that the house that prays for you, Alexander, and for your kingdom, that you not be destroyed - that our enemies should seduce you into destroying that very house?! We are praying for you!” Alexander was convinced; the temple was saved.
It’s a short little story; what do we make of it?
There are a couple of puzzling elements. Why is Alexander seeing apparitions of Shimon Hatzadik, like, what's the deal with that? Was that just a device that the Almighty used as a way of saving the Jews in this time of trial? Or is there meaning in that?
And coupled with that question is the question: when Shimon Hatzadik says, “We are praying for your success, Alexander”; was that true or was that just a convenient lie? It seems like it is true, because independently, Alexander seems to have been seeing these apparitions of Shimon Hatzadik leading his troops in battle. So Alexander already thought that this was true. So it kind of seems that this is actually the case.
So why would that be so, what skin is there for Shimon Hatzadik in the game of Alexander's conquests? When Greece battles Persia, what is it our business who wins?
Which Is the Real Story of Hanukkah?
There seems to be some sort of affinity between these men. And it’s strange, because in the actual Hanukkah we see ourselves as the enemies of the Greeks. It's a war which the Maccabees wage against the Syrian Greeks but this isn’t a war at all. In this meeting they were allies.
This meeting takes place several generations before the actual Hanukkah but it is the first high-level contact between Jewish culture and Greek culture and it happened on the 25th of Tevet; Hanukkah happens exactly 30 days before that, 25th day of Kislev. Could it be that this event, this first meeting between Greeks and Jews, is in some kind of way a prototype for Hanukkah?
The actual Hanukkah, the one that takes place 30 days before this, is the Hanukkah that came to be. That's the Hanukkah that we celebrate but it is not necessarily the Hanukkah that had to be. It could have been something else.
A Duplicate of the Hanukkah Oil Story?
In the Hanukkah that we celebrate, it's all about the menorah, it's all about these candles that would burn all night. Are there lights that burn all night in the story too?
Turns out, there are, those are the torches – torches that the elders held in their hands as they went outside the Beit Hamikdash, to greet Alexander. Isn't that an interesting coincidence? Candles on the menorah that would burn all night long, torches in this delegation that burned all night long. Not only did they burn all night long, they seem to continue burning even in the morning.
We are told that they are holding these torches when dawn comes. What are they doing holding torches when at the end they are going to meet Alexander in the daylight? The oil in the torches is only designed to keep the torches burning in the night but the torches continue burning hours after the oil was due to expire. J ust like the later miracle Hanukkah, the oil kept on burning.
Interestingly, that quality of the oil, its ability to keep on burning longer than its appointed time, seems to be associated in particular with the influence of Shimon Hatzadik.
The Gemara and the Midrash tell that for the 40 years that Shimon Hatzadik reigned as kohen gadol, a miracle would happen with the oil of the menorah.
The miracle happened with the westernmost candle.You see, all of the candles had exactly the same amount of oil in them. But the kohen gadol, Shimon Hatzadik, would light the westernmost candle first before all the other ones, and after all the other ones had long burned out, the western candle would keep on burning.
And now, in this story with Alexander, the light of the torches keeps on going, the only difference is that the light is outside the Beit Hamikdash now. The light is going to greet Alexander. Not only is the light outside the Beit Hamikdash, but the clothes of the kohen gadol are outside the Beit Hamikdash too.
That's the whole reason, actually, why the Gemara in Yoma starts talking about this story, because it wants to shed light on that debate: are you allowed to wear the clothes of the kehunah gedolah outside the Beit Hamikdash?
So here you have the clothes, that beautiful splendor of the clothes of the kohen gadol outside the Beit Hamikdash, and in a certain way you have the light of the menorah, the torches, outside the Beit Hamikdash too. The clothes of the kohen gadol, the light that normally burns inside, all of this is going outside now. It's going to greet Alexander. Why?
We are going to explore all of that in our next segment but before we get there, I need to tell you that I am going to be referencing some ideas that I have talked about in our first Hanukkah course, which you can find out on the video section of Aleph Beta.
So if you have heard that course, I am going to be dealing with some of the same ideas and reformulating them. If you haven't heard that course, don't worry, you won't be lost. I will reintroduce the materials. I will see you in our next segment.
Understanding the Story Behind Hanukkah
In order to get some perspective on that, I want to move back and just discuss some ideas with you, ideas that I think are very crucial to understanding Hanukkah as a whole.
There are two qualities of Hanukkah which make it kind of unique among all Jewish holidays. One of those is the role that thanks plays in the holiday.
The two great rabbinic holidays in the Jewish calendar are, of course, Purim and Hanukkah. On both of these days, we insert a special addition into our prayers known as the Al HaNisim prayer. But the Al HaNisim prayer of Hanukkah differs from that of Purim in an interesting aspect.
Look at the end of the prayer. The end of the Al HaNisim insertion of Purim, v'talu oto vaet banav al haetz.he last thing we hear is that they hanged Haman and his children upon a tree and that's it, that's the end of the Al HaNisim prayer.
In the Hanukkah version of Al HaNisim we also have a recounting of the miracle. But after we tell about the war, after we tell about the lights, the Al HaNisim prayer goes and adds something else: v'kavu shmonat yemey Hanukkah elu lehodot ulehalel leshimcha hagadol, that afterwards, they established these days of Hanukkah as days of thanks and of praise.
In Hanukkah it seems almost that we’re thanking God A) for the miracle and B) for our response to the miracle, that we establish these days as days of thanks. In some strange ways, that's part of the miracle too.
We will get back to that, but here is the second way in which Hanukkah is kind of distinct, in the role that beauty plays: We know that any given mitzvah in the Torah can be done in the regular way and can be done in the beautified kind of way, what we call hiddur mitzvah. You can buy an etrog and you can buy a really beautiful etrog, and if you buy a really beautiful etrog, then not only you have done the mitzvah but you have done hiddur mitzvah, you have done a beautification of the mitzvah too.
In Hanukkah there is also beautification of the mitzvah. Really, the mitzvah itself is just to light one candle. That which we light many candles, one for each night, and that which everyone in the family lights one, these are aspects of hiddur mitzvah, a beautification of the mitzvah.
But that's interesting, isn't it?How many people do you know light only one candle every night of Hanukkah? Nobody does this. The beautification of the mitzvah has become the standard, this is just what we do, it's what everybody does.
There's no other mitzvah that I can think of in the entire Torah where the hiddur mitzvah becomes the absolute standard by which it's done. We just haven't done this with any other mitzvah. What's going on here?
Judaism and Hellenism
Okay, let's stop a minute and talk about beauty and its relationship to the interaction between Greek culture on the one hand and Jewish culture on the other. The truth is that this interaction, even though it happens in history after the time where the Bible has canonized, nevertheless, it seems to be foretold in an eerie kind of way in a verse in the very beginning of Genesis, and that verse appears in a blessing that Noah gives to two of his children, Shem and Japheth. The verse says, yaft Elokim l'Yefet v'yishkon b'ohalei-Shem, “let God grant beauty to Japheth and let Japheth dwell in the tents of Shem.”
Now it's an oblique verse; it's hard to understand. What does it mean? But look at who the children of these people are: Japheth gives birth to a child by the name of Yavan, but Yavan later on becomes a nation-state. Yavan is of course a name for Greece, and who does Shem give birth to? Shem of course is the father of the Semites, the Jews. The Jews and the Greeks.
Way back when, in Genesis, there seems to be this premonition that Greeks and Jews will meet and the point of connection, somehow, will be beauty.
Yaft Elokim l'Yefet v'yishkon b'ohalei-Shem, God will grant beauty to Japheth, and that beauty will dwell in the tents of Shem. Interestingly, the flavor of the verse is not one of conflict, but one of alliance. The way history played out, the holiday that we celebrate is a holiday that commemorates a war between Greece and the Jews, between Japheth and Shem, but seemingly it didn't have to be that way.
It's almost like that war is a corruption of the original prophecy. There is a place for that beauty in the tents of Shem; what is that place?
Jewish Beauty vs Greek Beauty?
Well, let's talk about beauty a little bit. Beauty, of course, is a cardinal Greek virtue. The Greeks were enraptured by beauty. They tried to embody it in art, architecture, poetry and music. They tried to capture it in all areas of human endeavor.
Beauty is a Jewish value, too, but in a different kind of way. Perhaps the greatest symbol of beauty in Jewish culture is the beauty of the clothes of the kohen gadol. Beauty which normally belongs in the Beit Hamikdash, which occasionally can go outside too.
When does it go outside? It goes outside to greet the scion of Greece, Alexander of Macedon. It is almost as if the kohen gadol is bringing beauty with him as he goes to greet the king of Japheth. Japheth of course means beauty, although the verse “yaft Elokim l'Yefet v'yishkon b'ohalei-Shem”, “let God grant beauty to Japheth and let it dwell in the tents of Shem”, seems to suggest that there is a kind of synergy here; that if you can bring the energy of the Jewish worldview together with the focus on beauty and the Greek worldview, the whole can somehow be greater than the sum of its parts - that the tents of Shem, in a way, are the natural place for the beauty of Greece.
But in order to understand that we need to understand beauty itself. There are two qualities of beauty that I think are striking. First is pleasure. We human beings take pleasure in beauty and if you think about it, that's a very strange thing. Why is it that we take pleasure in beauty?
I mean taking pleasure in ice cream, I can understand. When I take pralines and cream ice cream and I eat it, that's very delicious. When I get a massage, it's wonderful. It feels good, it tastes good – but that's not the way we experience pleasure with beauty.
When I see a beautiful sunset, I don't get anything out of that sunset. When I see an extraordinary Renaissance painting, I am what I am, I am just appreciating something outside of me. What do I get out of that? How come my appreciation of that thing’s beauty leads to a sense of pleasure for me? It's extraordinary, very different than the other kinds of pleasures we experience in the world.
Even the words “we experience” would be associated with the pleasure normally that we experience. That involves my body, myself, but the pleasure of the beautiful doesn't involve myself, it involves something outside of me. All I am doing is appreciating that.
So that's one interesting thing about beauty, and here is the second interesting thing, and this, I think, gives us a key to understand the beauty of Japheth and the tents of Shem. The second interesting quality of beauty you can see in the kinds of ways we describe beauty.
“You look heavenly”, a beauty that is almost magical. “You just look radiant,transcendent.” Do you see where I am going here? All of these adjectives have to do with something beyond our world.
Unified – or Divided – by Beauty?
One of the most basic mysteries that confronts any man of science is one question at the heart of it all, and that question is: why does anything exist? Why is there something instead of nothing?
laws of nature. The ratio of the strengths of the nuclear strong force to the nuclear weak force is a very precise ratio and it is the same here as it is in the Andromeda galaxy. The ratio of the strength of gravity to electromagnetism is a very precise ratio and it is the same here as it is in the Orion's belt.
What accounts for the uniformity of the laws of the nature, for the fact that there are laws to nature instead of everything just being random, for the fact that there is something instead of nothing?
Basically, there are two possible answers to that question. One possible answer is “why not?” The world just is; you can't ask these kinds of questions.
That's one answer but there is another possible answer and that answer is 'because', this universe came from somewhere, somewhere outside this universe.
That's one answer, but there is another possible answer and that answer is “because”: this universe came from somewhere, somewhere outside this universe.There were something out of this world that brought this world, this universe into existence, it came from somewhere. The laws of physics come from somewhere. It can be traced back to a transcendent source. A source that we call God.
“Why not” and “because”. Science plays a kind of game. How far can we get in explaining this universe solely in terms of this universe, Without reference to anything outside of it, without reference to any transcendent realm? And that's a good game to play. You can explain a lot about the universe just in terms of itself.
But does the mere fact that we choose to play that game when we engage in science, mean that there is no such thing as the transcendent realm? It does not. Science does not give us guidance about things beyond this world. It is silent about them. Ultimately it gets down to: why is stuff here? “Why not?” or “because”?
Greece thought truth is the answer 'why not?'. Plato had entertained the idea of transcendent worlds; Aristotle, his student, focuses very much on this world and this world alone. In Aristotle's view, this world is eternal, it just is, the great answer to “why?” is “why not?”. Aristotle had a student, a student he tutored until he was 16 years old, that student was Alexander of Macedon.
But there is another great answer to that question: the great answer of the Jews; and our answer is “because”. And one day the leader of those who said “because” encountered the leader of those who said “why not?” and it happened when Shimon Hatzadik met Alexander the Great. Beauty was the point of contact.
The Purpose of Beauty
I want to argue that there is something in beauty that is a kind of bridge, a bridge to transcendence, a bridge to something beyond. That accounts for the kinds of the adjectives that we attach to beauty – “out of this world”, “heavenly”, all of these words are about transcendence. That's the way we describe beauty.
When we see beauty in the world we sense it as a kind of quasi-religious experience. There is something about hiking in Yosemite National Park which is very spiritual, you feel like you are as close as you can get in this world to the next world. Beauty is that bridge to that transcendent.
To see it, by the way, in the book of Psalms. Psalm 104: “barchi nafshi et-Hashem, my soul extols God, Elohai, my Lord, gadalta meod, You are very great, You are beyond, You are transcendent, hod v'hadar lavashta, You wear beauty like clothing.”
When you look at someone's clothes, you don't see them, you see the way they express themselves in this world. That's why the way we dress is so important to us, it is how we present ourselves to the world. Well, beauty is the way God presents himself to the world;t is not God himself that you see in beauty, it is God's clothes.
“Oteh-or kasalmah”, it is as if God dresses himself in light.Light is a part of the physical world but it is the most spiritual part of the physical world. Light is inherently mysterious. What is it, a particle or a wave? Turns out that it is both. How could something be both a particle and a wave? Richard Feynman, the great scientist, called it the central mystery of quantum mechanics and utter impossibility in our world.
But maybe it doesn't come from our world: “vayihi or”, light is the first thing that God brings into our world. There is something about light that is by nature transcendent.
When Shimon Hatzadik goes out to Alexander of Macedon he goes with two things, the beauty of his clothes and the light of the torches; and with those two, those bridges to transcendence, he goes out to greet the king of Japheth, the king of beauty, because this is the moment the beauty of Japheth could dwell in the tents of Shem.
And in that connection between Athens and Jerusalem, between Japheth and Shem, beauty could reach its ultimate meaning because beauty’s meaning doesn't lie in itself. It lies in the fact that it is a bridge, that it takes you somewhere, it takes you beyond. That's why beauty is so pleasurable.
God makes oranges pleasurable, peaches pleasurable, grapes pleasurable – the pleasure is there to goad you to eat it. It's good for you. The pleasure of beauty is there because it is good for you too, it is there to lure you in, to draw you onto the bridge – so you can connect to what's beyond.
The message of beauty is that pleasure doesn't just reside in your own body, in your own experience. Pleasure can reside in appreciation of something outside of you; it draws you outside of yourself, it says, “There's pleasure here, too”. There is pleasure in connecting with the transcendent.
Could the Story of Hanukkah Have Ended Differently?
Who are Japheth and Shem? Shem is about devotion to God, Japheth is about devotion to beauty. When Japheth dwells in the tents of Shem, beauty is elevated as a ladder to transcendence.
We can work together, Shimon Hatzadik is telling Alexander the Great. You have conquered the civilized world and you are the scion of beauty; come with me. I value beauty too, of the fire that I hold in my hands of these torches and the splendor of my clothes. These are bridges to somewhere. In the union of our worlds, we can help bring the world to the doorstep of heaven.
This was the first meeting between the Greeks and the Jews; it happened over a hundred years before Hanukkah but on the calendar, it came exactly 30 days after Hanukkah. This was the potential of Hanukkah but it was not the actual Hanukkah because tragedy intervened: Alexander died young at the age of 33.
Alexander was a great man: intellectually formidable, spiritually curious, one of the greatest strategists and generals of all time. His tactics and strategies are still studied in West Point today.
Alexander had no heir, there was no one person that could fill his shoes. Instead his four generals bickered and fought amongst themselves, dividing up the territory of his ancient empire among themselves. But it wasn't just the territory they couldn't keep together; they couldn't keep the vision of Alexander together either.
Greece's devotion to beauty began to fragment and crumble, and on the Jewish side, something eerily similar took place. The Gemara says that for the 40 years that Shimon Hatzadik was kohen gadol, those 40 years represented the height of spiritual progress in the Second Temple era. During those 40 years the western candle of the menorah used to burn longer than all the others. It would burn, somehow, miraculously, even when there was no more oil.
That miracle happened every day in Shimon Hatzadik's time. Every day was Hanukkah when the oil burned and burned, as the sign of transcendent God living in our world.
But when Shimon Hatzadik died, that vision fragmented too. The office of the High Priest soon became something that was bartered and bought. There was never again another Shimon Hatzadik.
And so, over a hundred years later, there was another encounter between the Greeks and the Jews, but it was just a shadow of their first encounter. The Greeks never had a man again like Alexander and we never had someone like Shimon Hatzadik; and so there would be another encounter between Japheth and Shem but this time, Japheth would come in war against the values of Shem.
Antiochus was a strange man, a man given to Hedonist excess. He would dance naked with his dancers at opulent feasts. He nicknamed himself Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “Antiochus God made manifest”. The people made fun of him with a nickname “Antiochus Epimanes”, which means “Antiochus, the mad one”.
Antiochus represented a devolution of the Greek spirit. Greece, enraptured by beauty, but by the time you got to Antiochus, the Greek vision had run its course and fragmented because in a world of “why not?”, where does beauty take you?
If beauty is a bridge to transcendence, it's meant to help take you to the beyond; but there is no beyond in your philosophy!then beauty is a bridge to nowhere.Then what happens? At some point, you don't even prize the beautiful anymore. All you prize is the pale byproduct of beauty, pleasure. God gave you a sense of pleasure in eating fruit because fruit is good for you, but if you want, you don't have to eat fruit. You can eat Fruity Pebbles; all the pleasure and none of the goodness, and that's Antiochus.
“Antiochus, God made manifest” is the same man as “Antiochus, the mad one”. One leads you to the other, because if there is no transcendence, if you, the most powerful one around, are the closest thing there is to God, then the beauty that you supposedly prize in your philosophy is bankrupt. It is just empty pleasure, and when you wallow in empty pleasure, become obsessed with it, well, that's “Antiochus, the mad one”. It's like eating Fruity Pebbles all day long, it is the insanity of the permanent sugar high.
This corruption of devotion to beauty leads Antiochus to madness. And it also leads him to his vicious war on Jewish worship because the Jews still held on to a vision of something more. A vision that said it doesn't end with “why not”, there is a “because”, and Antiochus wants to stamp out the “because”. So he says, there is no more Jewish worship, you can't do it. There is no bridge to transcendence. There is no transcendence.
The Purpose of Hanukkah
During the time of Antiochus, the Jews finally revolted against corrupt Priests. And righteous Priests, lead by Yahuda Maccabeus and his brothers fought the Greeks and prevailed. The Hanukkah that we celebrate is the Hanukkah of the victory of “because” over “why not?”.
But the Hanukkah that might have been still echoes as a kind of utopian dream. How would world history have been different if the beauty of Japheth, instead of coming to battle against the tents of Shem, had allowed itself to be elevated in the tents of Shem?
On Hanukkah we celebrate beauty, we institutionalize beauty. Everybody in the family lights candles and everybody lights one for each night, it is hiddur mitzvah, for what purpose? For the purpose of hoda'ah, for the purpose of recognizing the existence of the transcendent in our world.
“V'kavu shmonat yemey Hanukkah elu lehodot ulehalel leshimcha hagadol”, that's part of the miracle. Not just that we won the war, but what we did after winning the war. We established these days as days of recognition thatwinning the war wasn’t just about us. It was about that force beyond, the force that we try to get to through beauty, and that is what we glorify on this holiday of lights and these days of thanks and praise.