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Candles in memory of a clash of civilisations

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Spare a thought for Chanukah, the festival of rededication and light that began last night. It is the simplest of all Jewish festivals. All it requires, other than certain prayers, is the lighting of a candelabrum, the Menorah, in memory of the one that once stood in the Temple in Jerusalem.

We do so for eight days, each day lighting one light more than the day before. We say a blessing, sing a song and eat doughnuts (what would a Jewish festival be without food?). Hardly newsworthy. What could Chanukah possibly have to say to us, here, now?

The answer is that the event it recalls — the Jewish fight for religious freedom under the Greeks 22 centuries ago — was one of the most significant of all “clashes of civilisations”. It was a confrontation between the two great cultures that between them gave birth to Western civilisation: ancient Greece in the form of the Alexandrian empire, and ancient Israel.

It may be hard to believe that they were fundamentally opposed. Indeed, Christianity was born in their synthesis, the first Christians were Jews, and the first Christian texts were written in Greek. That synthesis existed in Judaism as well, though it was never mainstream. Its most famous representative was Philo of Alexandria.

But they were opposed. They represented two very different ways of understanding the universe, constructing a society and living a life. Much has been written about one contemporary clash, between “the West and the rest”. Far too little has been said about another clash, this time within the West itself. Essentially it is the same clash as the one Chanukah recalls more than two millennia ago.

In his Culture and Anarchy (1869) Matthew Arnold differentiated between the world of the Greeks, which he called Hellenism, and that of the Jews, which he called Hebraism. Hellenism was about art and the imagination. Its great ideal was beauty. Hebraism was about ethics and obligation. Its ideal was righteousness.

Arnold’s complaint was that in high Victorian England, there was too much Hebraism and too little Hellenism. Today the situation has been almost entirely reversed. Our secular culture, with its abortion and ever louder demands for euthanasia, its cult of the body, its deification of science and scepticism about religion, even its quasi-religious worship of sport, is deeply Hellenistic. Hebraic values such as the sanctity of life, the consecration of marriage, fidelity, modesty, inner worth as opposed to outward displays of wealth and power: all these are in eclipse. Not surprisingly, most philosophers of our time have found inspiration in the sages of Athens rather than the prophets of Israel. Ours is the most Hellenistic age since the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in the 4th century.

Ancient Greece gave the world the concept of tragedy. Ancient Israel taught it hope. In the loose sense in which we use these words today, they are no more than two different aspects of life. But they are in fact deeply incompatible. The French playwright Jean Anouilh put it best: “Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless . . . and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it.”

The fate of the Alexandrian empire should give us pause. It seemed all-conquering but within a few centuries it had been eclipsed. Bertrand Russell explained why: moral restraints disappeared; individualism ruled, and the result was “a rare florescence of genius”, but because of the “decay of morals” the Greeks fell “under the domination of nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion”. That is surely a warning for our times.

Tragic cultures eventually disintegrate and die. Lacking any sense of ultimate meaning, they lose the moral beliefs and restraints on which continuity depends. They sacrifice happiness for pleasure. They sell the future for the present. The West’s less-than-replacement birth rates and its ecological irresponsibility are just two examples of how it too is going the same way.

Ancient Greece and its culture of tragedy died. Judaism and its culture of hope survived. The Chanukah lights are the symbol of that survival, of Judaism’s refusal to jettison its values for the glamour and prestige of Hellenism or what today we call secularisation. A candle of hope may seem a small thing, but on it the very survival of a civilisation may depend.

(First published in The Times)