"Moshiach is ready to come now-our part is to increase in acts of goodness and kindness" -The Rebbe

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hellenism vs. Torah--the Perennial Struggle

Hellenism vs. Torah—The Perennial Struggle

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver

There are two general approaches to the universe that are totally at odds with each other:

One is the view of the modern western society in which we live, which is not only secular, but secularist and humanistic. This view maintains that knowledge and wisdom have intrinsic value, and that the human mind is the most superior tool of attaining it, and is therefore the final arbiter of truth and morality. A Creator may or may not exist. If it makes sense to believe in Him, then He can be accepted, but if not, not. In the time of Chanukah, this was the view of Greek society and of the assimilationist Jews known as the Hellenists.

In stark contrast, our holy Torah teaches that
Hashem is the only true reality—“There is nothing beside Him”[1]—upon which everything in the universe is totally dependent. As Rambam famously puts it at the very beginning of his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah:
The foundation of foundations and the pillar of wisdoms is to know that there is a Primal Existence, and He brings all entities into existence. And all entities from the heavens to the earth and everything in between only exist from the reality of His existence. And if you could imagine Him not in existence, then no other entity would be able to exist.
Since belief in Hashem is the basis of all wisdoms, no wisdom has any value if it is not based on the foundation of fear of Hashem, and the commitment to use this body of knowledge—which, like everything else in the world, is in fact a gift from Above—to fulfill His will. Or, as the Talmud puts it, “Everything that G–d created in His world, He created only for His glory.”[2] This was the view for which the Maccabees fought.

In recent centuries the secularist view is particularly dominant in the world of academia, which arrogates for itself the right to analyze anything and everything, and classify it and define it from its “objective” standpoint.

While academia claims for itself absolute authority and true objectivity, its starting point—that G–d doesn’t necessarily exist, or necessarily doesn’t exist, G–d forbid—is false and therefore surely anything but objective.

Therefore, even when studying the same material studied by a G–d-fearing Jew, e.g., the
Tanach (Hebrew Scripture), the secularist will reduce the holy, priceless, timeless words of Hashem into an intellectual specimen for cold, detached study. For instance, he will examine social and cultural trends reflected in the Tanach that are of historical significance, all the while treating the text of the Tanach as a work of folklore, G–d forbid. From his self-assumed all-knowing position as a skeptic of anything and everything, he will not hesitate to call into question and even reject any idea in Torah for which he finds no explanation that satisfies him. Sometimes he will not even bother to ask for an explanation, but will dismiss out of hand any idea that seems odd to him.

In contrast, the G–d-fearing Jew also studies the Talmud, but not because he desires wisdom for its own sake. Rather, he uses his G–d-given mind, and with rigorous consistency, as a means to an end—to do his utmost to understand G–d’s will. His use of intellect does not stem from the secularist’s arrogant conviction that he can know and master all; on the contrary, it stems from humility, from the sense that truth can only be obtained by submitting one’s fallible, puny mind to G–d’s all-knowing “Mind”, His infinite wisdom that He invested in the Torah.

Thus, he will study with the goal of grasping the reasons and deeper meaning behind the Talmudic statements and bringing them to permeate his consciousness and his daily life.

Moreover, he grasps that just as G–d is perfect, so is His wisdom. Thus, when he encounters a difficulty in his Torah study, he regards it as solely a fault in himself, a personal failure, and not a fault in the word of
Hashem, G–d forbid (for further explanation, see here).

Likewise, when a G–d-fearing Jew studies something secular, he does so leshem Shomayim ("for the sake of Heaven"), with an agenda, asking himself: How can he use this knowledge to better serve
Hashem (for more explanation, see here).

In other words, the secularist takes the holy and makes it mundane and even 
G–dless, while the G–d-fearing Jew rejects the G–dless, and takes the mundane and makes it holy.

There can be no compromise between these two approaches.

This is also reflected in their respective goals for society:

The humanist awaits the time when everyone will give up the “superstition” of belief in G–d, and worship intellect alone, the deity of the humanist.

In contrast, the G–d-fearing Jew eagerly awaits the time when G–d “will be one, and His Name, one,”[3]
 when all mankind will recognize that “all entities from the heavens to the earth and everything in between only exist from the reality of His existence,” and they will worship G–d alone.

[1] Devorim 4:35.
[2] Avos 6:11.
[3] Zechariah 14:9.


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  1. Well, the view that G-d doesn't necessarily exist is certainly a wrong view to have in day-to-day basis, but in the line of argument, G-d's existence must also be proven. It's not an axiom; it's a theorem. (Of course, within the boundaries of Yiddishkeit it's an axiom, but not within boundaries of seichel trying to prove validity of Yiddishkeit.)

  2. Exactly--that is true from a secular vantage point, but not for a Jew. According to the Rambam quoted in my post, the existence of Hashem is the axiom of everything.

    Or, as Chassidus says: Hashem certainly exists! It's the world's existence that must be proven!

  3. I agree that it's important to reach that state of mind, but I don't see how that view can exist lehatchilo.

    It's not about secular vs. Yiddishkeit. Is 2+2=4 a secular wisdom?

  4. If someone is properly raised with Torah, and especially with Chassidus, this view is indeed axiomatic. G-d is not a theory, G-d forbid. He is a reality, and it is the world that is not truly real.

    For someone who has been very influenced by secular philosophy, it's understandable that this approach may be very difficult to accept.

  5. What does being raised one way or another have to do with anything? These are not values; it's an objective truth. These things are not intuitive; they are objective and intellectual.

    Are you telling me that a child raised in a frum, chassidish family first of all see G-d and secondly sees the world? Unless a child has neshama of a tzaddik, it seems doubtful to me. Maybe a child was taught that of course Hashem exists that he doesn't even think to ask such a question -- but that's different.

    I don't think there is anything wrong in saying that we live in such a world, where the world is a reality, while G-d is a theory. Otherwise, the meaning of this world being the lowest, oilam ha'sheker, etc., etc. is lost (as is the idea of "they heard what they normally saw, and they saw what they normally heard"). Of course, a Jew should get to the point of living his life on such a way that Hashem is reality in intuitive way, but -- again, unless he becomes a tzaddik and his physical perception of reality changes -- the world will always be physically more real than Hashem.

    Again, I don't see where secular anything comes in. 2+2=4. That's not secular or non-secular. It's just logic. The fact that what you see is real, while what you don't see and is inferred from what you see must be proven is not secular; it's logical.

    You come outside, you see the world, not G-d. Like that chossid who's been davening the whole Yom Kippur: "There takeh is the world." Then, through your chochma you realize: nah, what I perceive is an illusion. Ein od milvado.

  6. BS"D

    To quote (albeit phonetically): Hanimna hanimnaot.

    Gvul w/out gvul.

    Our study must lead us to understand that we can't understand.


Thank you for your comment! :)