The Western World Through The Eyes Of the Torah – Greece Part 1

Before we delve into the subject of defining what the characteristics of Western culture are and the Torahs perspective on it, we must first look at the Torah’s view of the origin of the Western western world. In the Book of Genesis, following the Flood, Noah and his family would repopulate the world. Noah had three sons, Ham, Shem and Yafet. The Jewish people and other Semitic peoples descend from Shem, Shem is where the word Semite comes from. Ham descended to Africa and Yafet north towards Europe.

Yafet – Greece

plato socrates aristotle

In the book of Genesis, the table of nations lists the descendants of Yafet.1 One of them is named Yavan. Yavan is the founder of Greece. The philosophy of the Greeks and the Jews can be traced back to the names of their forefathers Shem and Yafet. Shem translates as Name. In Jewish philosophy and indeed in the Hebrew language the essence of something is in its name. The focus of Jewish thinking is on what lies beneath the surface on what is internal.

Yafet, meaning beauty, focuses on what is external, what is revealed on the outside. The Greeks valued wisdom from what could be observed from our senses and knowledge attained through reason and the intellect. To work within the laws of nature, with the goal of exercising control over it. Being that their emphasis was on externals, they admired perfection of the body, the physical form.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch who wrote in the 1800’s describes the conflict and this relationship between Shem and Yafet:

“Hellenism and Judaism: these are the names of the two spiritual element the effect and outcome of which mark the history of mankind, and which had their first encounter in Judea in the days of Mattithias.

Hellenism and Judaism: these, in a deeper sense, are the two tendencies which again to-day are struggling for mastery in the Jewish world.

There is an old prophecy, the oldest prediction known to us, which says:

“God shall enlarge Japheth (Yafet), and He shall dwell in the tents of Shem.” (Genesis 9:27.)

This prophecy, if we grasp its meaning correctly, proclaims nothing less than that God will give Japheth control over the minds of men- but Shem alone will build the tents in which God’s glory shall find a place on earth.

And Japheth’s issue is Yavan (Greece), the people of the Hellenes, whose mastery of all that is gracious and beautiful was to conquer the heart of Man.

And Shem’s issue is Eber, the people of the Hebrews, whose law of consecration, of justice and of love was to build the tents of man for God’s pleasure….

The whole history of the world to this day is a fulfilment of this prophecy. On the stage of history only two elements among the nations have, up to the present, shown themselves as truly dominant, intellectually influential and thereby shaping the opinions, customs, institutions, ideals and actions of peoples; while the rest of mankind seems to confine itself to receiving from them and to serving them. These two elements are Hellenism, the flowering of the spirit of Japheth which culminates in Greek civilisation; and Judaism, the spirit of the word of Divine teaching and life, which is carried and realised by Israel, the descendent of Shem.

In that old combination of Hellenism and Judaism, however, it appears only promised to Shem, proclaiming the glory of God; but conquest of the mind by Japhetic civilisation is only preparation for such building of the tents of mankind as will enable the God preached by Shem to move into them and find His place on earth. All minds will first open themselves to Japhetic civilisation and after that will Shem’s God enter into the tents of man. Japheth will conquer all others, but Shem will conquer Japheth.”2

These differences in outlook are illustrated within aggadic rabbinic writings. For example, the Gemara in Taanit 7a tells of a story between the daughter of Ceaser and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya:

“And R’ Oshaya said: – Why are the words of Torah compared to these three liquids: – water, wine, and milk; – as it is written: – Ho! Everyone that is thirsty, go to the water; and it is written further in that verse: and milk without money and at no cost? – This is to teach you that – just as these three liquids – are preserved only in the most inferior of vessels, i.e. earthenware vessels, so too the words of Torah are retained only by someone who is humble.

As the Caesar’s daughter said to R’ Yehoshua ben Chananyah: “Woe, glorious wisdom [Torah] in an ugly vessel!” He responded to he facetiously: “Does your father put his wine in earthenware vessels (which are ugly)?” She said to him: “But what else should we put the wine in?” Everyone uses earthenware vessels! He said to her” “You who are nobility should put your wine in vessels of gold and silver.”

She went and reported this suggestion to her father. He put the wine in vessels of gold and silver, and it became sour. When [his servants] came and told him that the wine had spoiled, he asked his daughter – “Who told you to do this?” She answered him: “R’ Yehoshua ben Chananyah!” – [His servants] called for [R’ Yehoshua ben Chananyah], and [Caesar] asked him: “Why did you tell [my daughter] to do this? [R’ Yehoshua] answered him: “As she spoke to me, so I replied to her.” She found it surprising that wisdom could be contained in an ugly person, so I gave her a reply which demonstrated that just as wine is preserved in ugly [earthenware] vessels, so too the Torah is better preserved in my inasmuch as I am ugly.

Caesar’s daughter continued to ask: “But there are beautiful people who are learned.” Thus we see that beauty does not preclude scholarship? [R’ Yehoshua] answered: “If [these handsome scholars] would be detestable in appearance  they would be even more learned.”3

The Jewish perspective is not judge a book by its cover. The essence of something or someone lies within, there is a lot more than meets the eye. This does not mean that Jews do not seek truth and knowledge in what is revealed in the physical world. The study of the world in a scientific manner of course can contribute to one gaining knowledge and attaining wisdom. But Jews also believe that this is only a particular type of wisdom which our Sages called Exterior Wisdom. The type of wisdom that Judaism aspires to is an Interior Wisdom, which believes in existence that is hidden from us and beyond what we can observe. One of the first things Jews say upon arising in the morning is “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.” In pursuit of knowledge and an attempt to connect to this hidden essence we discover that we are finite, there is a limit to what we can achieve. The hidden essence of existence is therefore something that no matter how much we may know it is essentially nothing, for God is infinite. This creates humility and awe of God and His creation as opposed to arrogance which comes from when one believes man is capable of knowing everything about all that exists and is in control and can manipulate it all to serve his needs and desires. Another illustration of this is found in On the Churban and Galus by Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg:

“Rav Eliyahu Lopian, ztz”l in his sefer Lev Eliyahu (Shevivi Lev; Eicha) cites the following incident, based on what the Rama ztz”l wrote in his book entitled Toras HaOlah. After Jeremiah left the people of Israel, he returned to Jerusalem, upon seeing the awful destruction of the most sacred place on earth, the Beis HaMikdash (Temple), he fell upon the remaining rubble of wood and stones. He wept uncontrollably.
Just then, one of the worlds most famous and respected philosophers happened to also be on the Har Habayis (Temple Mount). Amid the rubble he spied our prophet. The philosopher, foreseeing the earthshaking significance of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, gained permission to accompany our enemies in their conquest of Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple, the philosopher was allowed to enter the Har HaBayis (Temple Mount), just in time to see Jeremiah in the midst of his grief. The philosopher asked of those around him, “Who is that crying?” They told him, “A Jewish sage.” He asked Jeremiah, “They say you are a sage; if so, why are you crying over wood and stone? Also, this edifice has been destroyed. It is not befitting that you, a man of wisdom, weep over the past.”
Jeremiah answered back, “They say that you are a great philosopher. Certainly you have many philosophical questions that are still unresolved.”
With pride he answered, “Definitely so. I have many questions that I consider to be unsolvable by anyone in the world.”
This great thinker was haughtily pleased to believe that his dilemmas could stump the world! Jeremiah responded and said. “Let me hear what puzzles you and I shall solve them.” Plato told over his difficulties and Jeremiah answered them all at once – with ease. The philosopher was stunned. All his questions that he had lived with his whole life , and believed to be unanswerable, were explained without effort – as if they were nothing at all.
He exclaimed, “Can this be flesh and blood that stands before me – that it is full of so much wisdom?” He could not believe that it was humanly possible to answer his questions.
Jeremiah then said, “All the Wisdom that you have just heard I received from this wood and stone. You wondered why I should cry over them. Philosopher, pay attention; the source of it all – all that I have learned – stemmed from this wood and stone. Regarding your second question, hat it is not befitting that I weep over the past, I cannot answer, for you are not capable of understanding it.”4
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi in the Kuzari goes much further in simply acknowledging the differences in the types of wisdom possessed by the two world views. He claims that Greek wisdom was in fact learned indirectly through the Jews. He writes:
“The Divinely inspired wisdom of which we speak, which was passed down from Adam, went only to [Noach’s son] Shem, who was the elite descendent of Noach. This wisdom which the Greeks do possess was only acquired by them after they conquered the Persian empire and adopted their wisdom. Persia, in turn, had acquired its knowledge from the Babylonian empire. Greek philosophers, then, made their appearance only after that point in history when Persia was conquered. And later, when the Roman empire conquered the Greek empire, no philosopher of that stature arose again…. 5
“The Rabbi said: “Perhaps you can say the same about Shlomo’s (Solomon) wisdom, [that our knowledge today pales by comparison]. Blessed with Divine inspiration, a masterful intellect, and an inborn disposition, he was able to deal with all areas of knowledge. All the nations of the world – from as far as India – came to him to transcribe his wisdom for themselves. Thus, the foundations and fundamentals of all areas of knowledge trace themselves to us. They were passed first to the Chaldeans, then to Persia and Media, then to Greece, and then Rome. With the passage of time and multiple transcriptions, it was forgotten that these areas of wisdom originated with the Jews, and they were instead attributed to the Greeks and Romans. [Furthermore, much was lost in translating from Hebrew, because of] the inherent superiority of Hebrew as a language, and because of all the information that is contained within it.” 6
The Jews encountered Greece following the Persian exile. The Greeks conquered the Land of Israel, the above citations are examples of the dialogues between the Greeks and the Jews. The Greeks admired the Jewish Sages and could see that they possessed great wisdom. They were intrigued enough that they wanted the Torah to be translated into Greek. However, they were only interested in the Written Torah (Five books of Moses). They were not interested in the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah which today is for the most part written down in rabbinic texts, at that time was completely Oral. The Greek philosophy of accepting only what is observable was applied too in their attitude towards the Torah and Judaism. The Jews however did not view the Torah according to this worldview. In Judaism there is a principle that there are multiple levels to understanding the Torah and what it is teaching.
Just as we discussed earlier that if the universe is what is revealed and observable to us this is one layer of our understanding, but there is existence that is hidden which one has to dig and delve deeper in order to reveal but is not obvious. So too with the Torah. There is the plain simple reading of the text. This the Greeks accepted. But the Jews would read and understand the Torah in multiple ways that went beyond the plain meaning. Sometimes this involved exegetical methods of deriving hidden meanings that lay beneath the surface. Sometimes it may have come through what appeared as a peculiarity in the text, such as repetition of words, words being spelled differently than normal. The Jews believe that the Torah is perfect and if it were written in such a way it is not by accident, it is there to teach something. In other instances the explanation of the meanings of verses in the Torah comes not through such methods of interpretation but through received tradition. The Torah was handed down at Sinai and explanation of the deeper meanings of the verses were received and passed down from father to son or teacher to student.
In line with their worldview they were only interested in knowing what was written down. The Gemara in tractate Megillah tells us about the first translation of the Torah into another language which was Greek, the Septuagint:
‘It is related of King Ptolemy that he brought together seventy-two elders and placed them in seventy-two [separate] rooms, without telling them why he had brought them together, and he went in to each one of them and said to him, Translate for me the Torah of Moses your master. God then prompted each one of them and they all conceived the same idea and wrote for him, God created in the beginning, I shall make man in image and likeness, And he finished on the sixth day,and rested on the seventh day, Male and female he created him [but they did not write ‘created them’], Come let me descend and confound their tongues, And Sarah laughed among her relatives; For in their anger they slew an ox and in their wrath they digged up a stall; And Moses took his wife and his children, and made them ride on a carrier of men; And the abode of the children of Israel which they stayed in Egypt and in other lands was four hundred years, And he sent the elect of the children of Israel; And against the elect of the children of Israel he put not forth his hand; I have taken not one valuable of theirs; Which the Lord thy God distributed to give light to all the peoples; And he went and served other gods which I commanded should not be served. They also wrote for him ‘the beast with small legs’ and they did not write ‘the hare’, because the name of Ptolemy’s wife was hare, lest he should say, The Jews have jibed at me and put the name of my wife in the Torah.”7
The Rabbis were aware that there were verses in the Torah which if read literally or outside of the accepted tradition would be misconstrued to mean something else. As much as the translating of the Torah was seen as tragic, the Sages found a positive purpose and teaching with regarding it being translated into Greek specifically:

“R. Simeon B. Gamaliel says that books [of the scripture] also are permitted to be written only in Greek. R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Johanan: The halachah [law] follows R. Simeon b. Gamaliel. R. Johanan further said: What is the reason of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel? Scripture says, God enlarge Yafet, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; [this means] that the words of Yafet shall be in the tents of Shem. But why not say [the words of] Gomer and Magog? — R. Hiyya b. Abba replied: The real reason is because it is written, Let God enlarge Yafet: implying, let the chief beauty [yafyuth] of Yafet be in the tents of Shem.”8

The impact of hellenization on the Jews in this period was what brought about the sectarian divides of the later period of the Second Temple. The Pharisees held to the original tradition and were against and attempted to resist the Greek efforts to oppress Judaism. But there were other Jews who were taken in and tempted by the Greek way of life. The pursuit of physical pleasures and beauty were attractive and seduced many Jews to adopt their ways. They did so in a strange way though. The Greeks rather than seeking to destroy the Jews as a distinct group, they were happy for them to continue to identify as Jews. To keep their language and have a distinct culture, but on condition that they adopt Greek values and disconnect their external symbols from its internal meaning.

For example it would be fine to wear a gold star of David around ones neck. In this the Jew thinks he is being different and separating himself from the group and making a distinction, but is conforming to an alien cultural practice which is shared by the non-Jews of wearing gold necklaces with a symbol on it. So the Jews would have Stars of David and other peoples would have necklaces with a different symbol. Ultimately it is irrelevant, it is like a Jew getting a tattoo with a Jewish symbol on it. This the Greeks were fine with and even promoted. It was a far more effective method of control. It would encounter less resistance from those who would be seduced by it. It made them not feel that by embracing these new values and customs that they were abandoning or betraying their Judaism.

The Greek worldview of only accepting the written Torah was then too internalised by Jews through hellenism and gave birth to the Sadducees. They were a small, but elitist sect who rejected the Oral Torah.

Josephus tells us that the Pharisees had the support of the people. “On his death bed he told the queen to appease the Pharisees, since they had the popular support. Then he died and at age 49, having ruled for 27 years. She placed his corpse in the Pharisees’ hands, and they eulogized him before the people and gave him a magnificent funeral.”9

“Hyracanus became angry and began to believe what Jonathan had told him, so he finally left the Pharisees to join the Sadducees. In doing this, he drew the people’s hatred on himself, since they preferred the Pharisees. The Sadducees were viewed as the party of the few and the wealthy.”10

Concerning the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Josephus tells us:

“What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession of their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers; and concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious [subservient] to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.”11

Whilst we know that one of the contentions between Judaism and Christianity today is that Christianity rejects the Oral Torah. In other writings of mine I have provided evidence to suggest that primitive Christianity did not. The first to engage in the Hebrew Bible and introduce the notion of rejecting the Oral Torah into the equation was the Greeks by way of the Sadducees. The later Christians would for various reasons adopt Greek and Pagan notions into Christianity.

In part two we will examine another major contributor to Western Civilisation, Rome and its roots in the Torah.


1) Genesis 10.1-32

2) Hirsch, R (1956) Judaism Eternal Part 2, Soncino Press: London pp.187-189

3) Taanit 7a

4) Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg (2006) The Churban and Galus, Our Torah Our Prayers and Our Tears: Israel pp. 59-61

5) HaLevi, Y Kuzari, 1:63

6) HaLevi, Y Kuzari, 2:66

7) Megilla 9a

8) Megilla 9b

9) Josephus (1988) Jewish Antiquities, pp. 224

10) Josephus (1988) Jewish Antiquities, pp. 222

11) Josephus Antiquities of the Jews, 13.10.6[ 297]

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