From Zeno to Bibi (And Obama?) Part 2

“Cursed be the father who teachers his son the wisdom of the Greeks.”

So says the Talmud.

The Greeks, at least the Stoics (and they’re what matters here) defined wisdom as “the knowledge of things human and divine.”

So why the fuss: a squabble that, the Maccabees notwithstanding, still goes on today? What is so heinous about the “wisdom” of the Greeks? And let’s be clear: This is about more than eating bacon double cheeseburgers or getting a shiny new (or used?) foreskin off EBay.

The fact is, has been for millennia, that the more Orthodox, i.e., “straight-thinking” the Jew, the greater the required abhorrence. Even if, and especially if, you haven’t the vaguest notion what the wisdom of the Greeks might be about.

But first, a few words of well-earned ire for Barack Obama.

As most sentient bipeds know by now, President Obama has asked Congress for “authorization,” not to mention money, to conduct certain limited operations against ISIL, aka ISIS and IS, for a limited period of time. The most charitable explanation here is that he’s using the request as a political tactic to embarrass the Congressional Republicans: a group with no shame to speak of, that’s certainly keeping the national sense of shamelessness alive. The worst possible outcome will be that Mr. Obama gets what he wants, and then proceeds in the great American tradition established in Vietnam: Blow up lots of stuff, kill lots of people, then get stupid, get tired, get bored, walk away and lose.

This blog has argued repeatedly that what America needs is not yet another “authorization” but a good old-fashioned declaration of war against ISIS, Boko Haram, al Qaida, the rest of that crew, their affiliates and enablers, and whatever any of them may be calling themselves next week. To repeat: There is no constitutional barrier to declaring war against non-nation states, nor is there any specification as to the form and details of such a declaration. The great advantage is that a declaration establishes and may authorize the establishment of a specific legal framework, to include full compliance with the Constitution’s very restrictive definition of treason.

With a declaration of war, foreign criminals become legitimate enemies, with the rights of combatants but nothing more, while the domestic aid-and-comfort folks become liable to prison, loss of citizenship, and deportation, for anything beyond strident dissent.

Declaring war also demonstrates an acceptance that violent expansionist Islamism now constitutes a clear and present danger to civilization, including and especially the Islamic. Once again, the issue is the world. Under such conditions, the strategies of “limitation” and “management” must yield to victory.

Several days ago, the White House issued its final National Security Strategy, traditionally a vacuous, self-preening wish-list regarded by nearly all knowledgeable students of national security as, to put it kindly, waste paper. This one surely ranks among the worst.

Mr. Obama’s document contains the standard creedal statement:

“. . . an uneniable truth—America must lead. Strong and sustained American leadership is essential. . . . The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”

How should “we” lead? How about, in accordance with the reality of the situation. If Iran and Gaza have taught us anything, it’s than Islamism should never be permitted to control territory, resources and people. Or has American leadership (is anybody following?) become a bit of meaningless rhetoric that America uses to console itself for its cumulating failures, and the world invokes whenever it wants to do nothing?

Now . . . back to the Greeks.

Reading Herman Wouk’s This Is My God (please see previous posts), I was horrified by more than his “Keep the Law until something good happens to the world” justification for the existence of Judaism and the Jewish people. I was also appalled by his scorn for the Hellenistic world and its “chaos” of religions and deities. One man’s chaos is another woman’s freedom, is it not? And since Mr. Wouk was no overt advocate or practitioner of Godolatry – “There’s only one God and we got him, so get with our program or else” – he didn’t have that excuse. (The Hasmoneans did.) Nor did he deny Greece’s great accomplishments, although he did, in fine undergraduate manner, relegate them to the Departments of Classics, Art, History, Science, Philosophy, etc.

Things to be studied, even appreciated, but never to be permitted to influence Judaism.

Where to start with that one?

We need not tarry over those sages, past and present, who hold that teaching the wisdom of the Greeks is so forbidden that even arithmetic’s out, except maybe for the zero, an Arabic invention. Nor need we delve into the etymologies of words such as synagogue, Sanhedrin, etc., or note the similarities of the seder to the symposium.

Rather, two initial facts prevail.

First, the Greeks that the Jews encountered were centuries beyond the age of Homer, centuries past the classic era. This was Hellenstic culture, operating in an oppressive political vacuum: huge successor empires that inspired neither loyalty nor admiration; endless relics of smaller countries and city-states; and a rising Rome that the Maccabees and Hasmoneans deftly befriended and exploited. For a while.

Second, the deities of this era were fundamentally civic, protectors of the realms, to be acknowledged but not necessarily believed in. (If you wanted a personal experience of some deity or other, you joined a mystery cult: no limit on numbers or availability). To acknowledge or sacrifice to civic deities was a bit like standing up for the National Anthem. Nobody cared what you really believed, but if you didn’t make the gesture, you were ignorant, ill-mannered . . . or worse.

Under such circumstances, the Jews could not but seem, to many, ignorant, ill-mannered . . . and worse.

To Be Continued

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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