Hellenization and Enlightenment: Post-Hanukka ruminations

How can one dare compare narrow-minded religion with the all-embracing faith of universality and equality that is socialism?

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fundamentals • religion • welfare

Waging a national and religious war of survival, the Maccabees had to be harsh with their enemies, the Seleucids, bearers of seductive Greek gifts. They were ruthless toward their Hellenized followers, the Jewish city dwellers who forsook their heritage for Greek delights. The Hellenized Jews were the more affluent and sophisticated among the Jews. They were enamored with universal values, unlike their fellow ignorant Jews, the unschooled yokels who did not speak proper Greek and were stuck with Jewish particularity.

The Hellenized Jews sported Greek fashion and hairdos and did gymnastics with the boys. They cared a lot for appearances, for “aesthetics”. They were “progressives.”

But they were not too concerned with liberty; with the freedom to be different, Jewish. Jewish tradition and its sages must have seemed to them narrow-minded, retrograde. How could you even start comparing the Bible, this confusing medley of stories and poetry, with the disciplined methodology and coherence of lofty Greek abstractions; with their universality? How could you compare the passionate effusions of a Jeremiah or an Isaiah with the cool logic of a Plato or an Aristotle?

OUR CONTEMPORARY university-educated Hellenized elites probably feel the same. They too consider themselves the proponents of progress and enlightenment. They too scorn retrograde religious or nationalistic uniqueness and particularity. They have no use for religions that celebrate individual accomplishment and insist on individual responsibility. How could you compare such narrow-minded religions with the all-embracing faith of universality and equality—socialism?

When they speak of human rights, our progressives therefore mostly think in terms of collective rights, the rights of a faceless public, of a homogenized nation, or best of all, the masses—these amorphous aggregates in whom the individual is merely a standardized cipher, never a distinct, unique being, with varying needs and wishes.

This may be why our liberal elites are not so keen on individual liberty. The struggle for liberty is an expression of our noble human quest to free ourselves from the drudgery of mere survival, from its distinction-less sameness. Liberty encourages us to cultivate what is unique and different in each of us.

Dazzled by the lofty abstractions of Greek thought and the tautologies of post-modernist dogma, progressives mostly overlook the greatness of Judaism’s commitment to the sanctity of individual life, the deep significance of its conviction that “he who sustains one soul of Israel has thereby sustained a whole world” because in Judaism each soul is a unique, incomparable and irreplaceable being; not the faceless member of a collective.

Now, as then, the Hellenized fail to appreciate the world of difference between Judaism’s profound affirmation of life (“these are the laws and commandments that man shall observe to live by them”) and the obsession of other religions with death; the import of Judaism’s embrace of the progression of time as a fecund process of change leading to salvation. They do not grasp how basically Judaism’s embrace of life differs from the obsessive fear of death which made other religions want to arrest time both physically (by building the everlasting pyramids) and mentally (by creating perfect immutable abstractions) because they feared time’s ruinous progression leads to decay and damnation.

Paradoxically it was Judaism’s affirmation of life that made some Jews able to fight for its survival even at a risk of their lives. Judaism’s survival, they deeply felt, was essential not only for the preservation of their most distinct and creative culture, but for the evolution of human life, its uniqueness and its redemptive potential.

THE INDIFFERENCE of our progressives to individual liberty, that is worlds apart from the politicized collective liberty which they so worship, that is so different from their faith-driven quest for “equality” is crucial to the understanding of their often duplicitous attitudes toward freedom in issues such as Palestinian rights and economic rights, to pick just two.

It is remarkable how many of Israel’s progressives, especially in the academia and the media have dedicated their lives to the establishment of a Palestinian state because they consider political equality, the right of “self-determination” a supreme expression of freedom. The same people who are so “liberal,” and consider Jewish nationalism reactionary, totally devote their best efforts to a most jingoistic and racist Arab nationalism that tramples the most basic human rights of its own citizens and shunts most its energies to a jihad against Jews.

As long as it fits even the most perverse definition of “self-determination,” it does not seem to matter to our progressives that the Palestinian Authority is really a coalition of clans that gravely oppress their people. What really matters to them are not individual rights, but collective, political rights whose attainment justifies in their eyes any means, even terrorism, the ultimate outrage against individual human rights.

For similar reasons, it seems, our liberal elites are very hostile toward economic freedom. The same intellectuals, academics and artists who would climb the barricades at the mere suggestion that government should be allowed to curb creative freedom, even when it may threaten society, are the ones who strongly advocate economic oppression.

Our progressives have been indoctrinated to believe that profits come from exploitation, that commerce is a zero-sum game that leads to growing inequality (as it temporarily does sometimes).

This is for them a cause for its damnation, because they worship the false god of equality, and uphold an abstract and unrealizable “right,” more important than the right of people to improve their lives even if not at an equal pace, as must be.

Progressives also fear that economic liberty grants too much freedom to the individual, and that it may lead to a vulgar and demeaning consumer culture (which it may, temporarily, but is then always succeeded by a great flourish of culture).

By rewarding the creative hard-working individual, they worry, economic freedom may make people doubt the merits of equality, and this is the greatest heresy of all. It must be stamped out through economic suppression or the market will become a jungle, they are convinced, despite the overwhelming evidence that markets brought on the whole huge benefits to humanity, and still do (look at what happens now in China and India where even badly constrained markets have created a miracle of economic progress).

So freedom, yes, say our progressive, but only in their god’s creative acre; not for the general public. It is too good – and dangerous – for the common people, they are convinced.

This is why we must continue fighting so hard for economic freedom, whose benefits are so huge and obvious. Economic freedom despite its human failings also works much better than all its alternatives, as Churchill said of democracy.

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