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
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:
“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]