Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Kislev 5759, December 8, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
What's the Real Thing?
by Rabbi Pinchas Kantrowitz

"It's the real thing -- Coke!" A human tooth placed in a vessel containing Coca Cola for an extended period eventually disintegrates, utterly disappears! Place a lot of sugar in water, put in a special secret admixture of chemicals and, voila! -- the "real thing!" But the world has bought this slogan, as well as cans and bottles by the billions. How did the Coca Cola company manage to convince the world that their product is the "real thing?" Perhaps we can blame the ancient Greeks. The Greeks? Please allow us to explain.

What remains from Ancient Greece? What are the legacies of the Greek Empire to the Modern World? One can't stroll far into a great art museum without bumping into a colossal marble or bronze statue (minus the nose perhaps) dating to the Greek Empire. Greek sculpture is omnipresent even today in Athens and other cities of modern Greece, and ubiquitous in the great art museums worldwide: The British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan in New York City to name a few.

The basis of this legacy is the ancient Greek reverence for the human form. The ancient Greeks idolized the human body; they saw it as perfect and beautiful. So enamored were they with the natural form that during their occupation of the Land of Israel they prohibited bris mila. How could one improve upon Divine Creation, they argued?

The Olympic Games certainly rank among the more popular legacies of the ancient Greeks, so popular worldwide that the Winter and Summer Games were recently split, enabling aficionados to enjoy this entertainment every two years instead of every four. The Olympic Games are the world's symbol of sports, the epitome of athletic competition. "Sound body, sound mind:" To be of sound mind one must develop a sound body, according to their philosophy.

However, sports today has become more than a means to a sound body, it has become a major world industry with top athletes earning millions annually. The Greek adoration of the human form has become a worship of the athlete, the individual of great physical prowess who has trained the body to attain its maximal physical capacities. Not only is the physical form to be admired through sculpture, but the master of the physical is to be idolized through sport!

The Greeks left us an intellectual legacy as well. They made contributions in mathematics, literature, and science. Perhaps their greatest intellectual legacy, however, was in the field of philosophy.

"Philosophy," said 20th century Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, "removes from religion all reason for existing . . . As the science of the spirit, it looks upon religion as a phenomenon, a transitory historical fact, a psychic condition that can be surpassed" (Esthetic Ch. 8). Here, Croce expresses the modern intellectual legacy of the Greeks. According to Croce "ideas do not represent, but are reality. Art is the expression of a Creative Mind outside of which nothing exists; thus reality is history and all knowledge historical knowledge" (The University Encyclopedia).

If ideas are reality, then reality becomes history, and religion can be seen as "a transitory historical fact," a "psychic condition" to be surpassed and replaced by philosophy, "the science of the spirit."

The "sound mind" in the Greek view is one which believes only in the concrete, and experiences a "reality" of the five senses. Even the esoteric idea, even the lofty ideal, must be understood as a concrete expression of a concrete world. Thus, the "sound body" is celebrated by the Greek approach only as a tool to experience the concrete, and the "sound mind" as a tool to understand the concrete.

"It is also necessary to know that G-d must be absolutely one. It is impossible that there exist more than one being whose existence is intrinsically imperative. Only one Being can possibly exist with this necessarily perfect Essence, and therefore the only reason all other things have the possibility of existence is that G-d wills them to exist. All other things therefore depend on Him, and do not have intrinsic existence" (Derech Hashem, 1:1:6)

Hashem, the intangible, unknowable, and indescribable, is the only "intrinsically imperative" existence; all else depends entirely on Hashem's will; as long as Hashem wills it, it exists. Art, philosophy, history, even the human body are not real, as they are only temporal expressions of the Will of the True Existence, Hashem. The concrete world is ephemeral, transitory. The intangible world of the Creator is eternal, "real!"

Yet, of all of the empires that challenged Israel throughout history, the empire of Greece came the closest to an appreciation of the remarkable wisdom of the Torah. Whereas the Romans brutally murdered Rabbi Akiva and other great sages for the "terrible" civil transgression of teaching Torah, the Greeks, aware of its brilliant insights, had it translated into their native tongue in the Septuagint. How could Greece be at one and the same time "so close, yet so far?"

Greece, as we have noted, turns to its philosophy to explain the place of the human mind and spirit in the context of the historical framework of the physical world: "Art is the expression of the Creative Mind outside of which nothing exists; thus, reality is history and all knowledge historical knowledge." All knowledge is limited to this world, as this world is, for the Greek philosopher, all that exists.

Israel, on the other hand, recognizes Torah as its main source of illumination in its journey through the dark and dangerous byways of this world to achieve a spiritual world. Torah comes from the root word horo'oh, which means "instruction." Torah is not abstract theoretical knowledge, but a pragmatic step-by-step owner's manual to the immensely complicated operation of the human mind and body in all of the myriad circumstances of this world.

"Chochmah bagoyim ta'amin, Torah bagoyim al ta'amin" ("[If you find] Wisdom among the nations, believe it; Torah among the nations, don't believe it"). Greece, focused exclusively on this world, perceived the Torah as remarkable wisdom to be incorporated into their understanding of the universe; this however, was their failing. They perceived it merely as remarkable wisdom to be incorporated into their understanding of the universe, and no more! The Greeks turned Torah, the instruction manual, into "wisdom," nothing more than a theoretical mindgame.

The struggle with ancient Greece began after the last of the great prophets of Israel, Malachi, ceased to prophesy after the destruction of the first Temple. The challenge faced by Israel passed to the disciple of the Prophet -- the Chochom -- who must joust intellectually with the Philosopher of Greece. This was a battle over the concept of "Toras Chaim," "the Living Torah." The Jew has always recognized this idea, that the Torah not only is life sustaining, but can actually be seen as alive: "Eitz chaim hi lamachazikim boh." The will of Elokim Chaim, was given by the Creator in the form of "a tree of life," an entity that perpetually grows.

Does the Torah truly grow? Is it not immutable, as Principle #8 of the 13 Principles of Faith of the Rambam reads: "I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah now in our hands is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, olov hasholom?"

Yes, it is immutable -- but yes, it grows. "According to the teaching that they will say to you, shall you do; you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left" (Devorim 17:11). The Torah continues to grow, as it is interpreted by the Sages of each generation, yet it is immutable in that every valid interpretation of the Sages is rooted in the Law that Moses received at Sinai, and was actually received by him at Sinai. The new branches are merely extensions of the old tree.

Thus, the battle with Greece was essentially over the validity of the Oral Law. The Jew holds that the Written Law is impossible without the Oral Law, absolutely incomprehensible. The Oral Law is the flesh that gives body to the skeleton of the Written Law, what makes it a Toras Chaim. The decrees of Greece did not threaten the Torah as theory, as much as Torah in practice. They too wanted to appreciate the wisdom of the Torah as it fit into life in this physical world; what they couldn't tolerate was a living Torah that continually instructs the nation of Israel to find the eternity of the next world through the mundane actions of this world.

The decrees against the observance of Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and bris mila were specifically designed to force the Jew to renounce his unique, ongoing relationship with the Creator. Shabbos is the testimonial that Hashem is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe; Rosh Chodesh enables the Jewish people to become "partners in time;" and bris mila establishes a covenant throughout the generations while pronouncing that the physical is imperfect in itself when it is not directed toward the spiritual.

The Midrash illustrates this concept when it tells us that the four exiles are hinted at in the second verse of the Torah: "When the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep, and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters" (Bereishis 1:2). What hint does the Torah give of the exile of Greece? "`Choshech' zu Yovon, `Darkness' this is Greece, as they forced Israel to write on the horn of an ox, `We have no portion in the G-d of Israel.'"

The attempt to sever the bonds between Heaven and earth, to declare that Wisdom is temporal and historical, this is the darkness that obscures the Eternal Light of the Creator until darkness is mistaken for light. This is proven within their own domain of history again and again over the millennia, as their wisdom only rationalizes corruption and brutality, darkening the Eternal Light of this world.

It is the Light of the Sages, a Light kindled by man, albeit from the eternal Flame of Torah, that banishes the manmade, obscuring darkness of Greece. This was the miracle of Chanukah: the mesiras nefesh of the Rabbis to find one pure canister of oil with which they could light the Menora and fulfill the Temple Service as well as possible, leads to a miracle in which Hashem enables this oil to burn for eight days until more can be naturally obtained. The Light of the Sages who recognize that only Hashem is "the Real Thing," banishes the darkness of the Greeks and their temporal philosophy. "A little (manmade but Divinely inspired) Light banishes a lot of (manmade) darkness!"

So it's all the Greeks' fault! They convinced the world that the human body should be worshiped for its own sake (sculpture), that one who maximizes the utilization of the human body becomes the idol of society (Olympics), and that the idea is reality (philosophy). They turned Coke into the "real thing."

One nation isn't "sold." The Jewish people. We say the "Real Thing" is Hashem! Hashem adds life! Therefore, we as a nation must "teach the world to sing in perfect harmony" the song of Hashem.

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