A philosopher and a rabbi walk into a bar…
The two great traditions which can be said to be fundamental to Western culture are indisputably Hebrew and Greek. From the Jews and their distant offspring, the Christians, and Muslims, we have inherited the tradition of monotheism. From the Greeks we have inherited the tradition of philosophy and beauty. In this short essay I will elucidate the stark differences between the Hebraic conception of the world and the Greek. I claim that the fundamental difference between the Hebrew and Greek worlds is, in the perfect use of a Greek philosophical word, telos. The Hebrew world is telos-based: there is One All-Mighty God, the god of transcendence, of nature, of history and providence: his partly-scrutable, partly inscrutable Will is the point of life. The Greek world has no telos. Greek philosophy serves to understand, explicate, and elucidate without stating any aim or purpose. To know the world better, to understand objects entirely, to discover the correct, clear relations between ideas and things: that is the Ancient Greek way. What you do in the world, that my friend is up to you, not God.
Hebrew Philosophy: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One.
In the widely-distributed Chassidic prayer book of the Alter Rebbe — Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi — a prayer book inspired and mostly an addition to, of the famous Kabbalist Ha’ Arizal, there is an emphatic declaration of Jewish truth in a prayer said for Ma’ariv, the evening: “Truth and belief is all this; it is established with us that He is the Lord, there is no other and that we are Israel his people.” As you can see, Jewish truth is fundamental, unchanging and not in need of a continuous search, but accepted on the matter of faith. Hashem, the Lord of the Universe, is the only God (worthy of the name God, more on other divine beings later); and Israel, the descendents of Jacob, the nation who Moses led, are the people of God. Jewish truth is unequivocal and teleological. God exists, God commands. He has chosen His people for a specific mission — the spiritual upliftment of the universe, to reveal his presence among the nations, and to shine as light so that all the nations may return to Him. And to achieve this mission, God has commanded 613 commandments, laws required to be followed if the universe is to reach its full spiritual development. This is the task of the Jew individually, and of Israel collectively.
Greek Philosophy: “The unexamined life is not worth living”
Greek philosophy finds its unity only in its form: the search for truth, applied by the human mind to things outside of it. Greek philosophy itself is multifarious: what is the nature of the world, is it water, or fire, or wind, or earth? What is the nature of beauty, truth, philosophy, ethics etc etc. The asking of that peculiar question: “What is the nature of x?” defines the Greek manner of life. It is a search for the unknown, the infinitely complex and changing nature of objects, their continuous development of ideas and the relations between different ideas. The Great Three, Socrates, the ethical master, Plato, the spiritual eclectic, and Aristotle, the analytical genius, all searched, questioned, prodded, and discovered laws of the natural universe, laws of the human soul.
Telos existed as an explanation for the cause of appearances in Nature and their ideal states, not as a motivating force for human conduct. The telos of man was to be man — a divine beast, not quite like the animals, but certainly not like the gods. There was no directing force to human conduct, only a heavy suggestion that one should act in accordance with one’s nature.
And when it came to the transcendental they explored, and narrated the myths of the Greek gods and heroes of antiquity. Things supernatural to them existed, but they did not follow any laws or logic — the gods were capricious, human-like in their desires and ambitions. They demanded nothing, other than respect admiration and detested and punished human hubris.
The greatest, most noble aim of the Greek was to approximate, nay, even become like, the gods. To achieve heroic status through virtue, self-sacrifice and then to share his place among the blessed gods upon Mount Olympus. Divinity existed, but it was an exclusive club for the meritorious. It had no telos, although it had many challenges and quests for the eager noble soul.
Combination of Greek and Hebrew philosophy — Marxism
The first serious confrontation and synthesis between Hebrew and Greek philosophy was embodied and elucidated by Karl Marx. A son of a prestigious line of rabbis, Marx fully immersed himself in the minutiae, mechanisms and the how, of the secular world, combining Jewish moral teleological thinking to Greek-originated objective sciences. “Then the world will be for the common people, and the sounds of happiness will reach the deepest springs. Ah! Come! People of every land, how can you not be roused.” He dispassionately analysed the state of history, its mechanisms and movements, but buttressed his claims with a distinctly Jewish teleological impetus to free other human beings, to promote love and tolerance and sharing. If (read Greek) philosophers before him had interpreted the world, this Jewish philosopher, like God’s intervention at Mount Sinai, wanted to change the world.
There is nothing inevitable about the end of history, when all classes of people will come together and share their wealth ,as Marx predicted. While it IS the objectively correct answer to history given the aims of all people everywhere, and given the logic of how technology develops — there are other more nefarious forces at play such as the ruling classes of each country, and all reactionary forces which means it can be delayed, retrogressed, or completely obliterated.
Nonetheless, the point is made. Marx combined his Jewish ethos with an objective Greek philosophy. And the world has felt the consequences ever since.
Jews look to the Greeks; Greeks look to the Jews
I believe that the best course of action for someone in this world, who is spiritually inclined, is to combine the Hebrew/Greek modes of thought and action. The Hebrew philosophy asserts a telos to the world: the world is meant to be peaceful, loving and joyous. The Greek philosophy gives the correct tools with which to understand the world. If the Grecian offspring, the West, looks to the Jews to discover the purpose of the world, they should be reinvigorated in their task to make the world a better place. If the Jews look to the Greeks, they can objectify and scientifically improve the world around them, proceeding by causality and not by mere chance or some slight individual effort.
Thankfully, this combination of philosophy already exists, as I’ve said originally in Marxism, but now widespread everywhere and within other philosophies.
Everyone plays their part
Not everyone needs to be spiritual, and they have a justified metaphysical position of being materialistic. Not everyone needs to be materialistic, and can be spiritual. All in all, the position of the existentialists of making one’s own meaning is sound and irrefutable.
But to those who are inclined to justice-seeking, spirituality and divinity, I strongly encourage you to follow a world philosophy which unites Hebrew telos, and Greek know-how. The master of both spiritual and material worlds is neither the rabbi or the marxist, but the marxist rabbi.