There was no “us against them” but rather an unparalleled unity that had emerged directly from our common bond to the Torah.
Another key distinction between the two events was the motivation that inspired the behaviors of each group of “performers.” In the former context, athletes were driven by personal glory – the ability to achieve international recognition as a leading competitor in their respective field. Many, undoubtedly, hoped to parlay their victory into real gold, the financial windfall enjoyed by the most successful and popular athletes.
For the “champion of the daf,” however, there is no such windfall, financial or otherwise. Outside of some personal recognition by family and friends (not to mention encouragement received from our leading sages), the main motivator in this process was each individual’s desire to better himself through a rigorous commitment to study.
But the greatest distinction between the two events was the underlying values and origins of each. The roots of the Olympics lie in the ancient Greek games, where religious sacrifices to mythical gods accompanied sporting events. The Daf Yomi cycle, in stark contrast, is a process that traces itself to Har Sinai, the most significant and lofty moment in our nation’s history, and the source of our national identity and vitality.
The ancient Greeks believed in a primitive form of paganism, with human-like gods who conducted themselves as rash and irresponsible people. Their deities ate, drank, and engaged in loving relationships. They could be bribed, fooled, or, at times, disregarded. They entered into conflicts like regular people, without the social and moral responsibilities that humans possessed. The gods were even the regular subject of derisive scorn from Greek thinkers and writers.
Ethically, Greek life was corrupt as well. It was a society of unprecedented openness and unabashed promiscuity. The human body was considered a means for artistic expression, with no need for privacy. Athletic prowess was openly touted in the Olympics. Such an inverted sense of morality affected other areas as well. Children who were born imperfect were viewed as a burden on society and killed. Aristotle rationalized this as a means of countering overpopulation.
Such thought and conduct presented a shell shock to many of the societies in which it came into contact. None, however, would be affected more than the Jewish people, for whom Hellenism would serve as a destabilizing force unlike any other in our history until modern times.
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For the Jewish people, the Greeks were more foreign than any group they had ever come into contact with. They differed on every level, including such key areas as religious beliefs and social values. The following represents a partial list of differences that existed between the two groups.
• Belief in a Higher Authority – The Jews were monotheistic, believing in one all-powerful, omniscient God. The Greeks were polytheistic, worshiping multiple deities.
• Nature of God – The Jewish God was incorporeal, possessing no physical attributes or limitations. He was perfect and holy. Greek gods were human in form, behavior, and interests.
• Source of the Good – Jews: Knowledge of the good comes from God and His Torah. Greeks: Man’s Intellect provides such knowledge.
• Reward and Punishment – The Jews believed God is interested in human affairs. He rewards good behavior and punishes misdeeds. The Greeks maintained that the gods were not interested in human behavior and left people to their own devices.
To the Jews, human beings were created in the image of God. To the Greeks, deities were fashioned in the image of human beings. In the Jews’ mind, the physical world was something to be refined and elevated. The Greeks viewed the physical world as faultless, needing no further perfection.
In a Jewish state founded on preserving its religious purity, the Greek gods, with their wanton, capricious behavior, were wildly offensive. In a Jewish society firmly opposed to public indecency, Greek indiscretions in this area were shockingly distasteful. For a Jewish religion that singles out illegitimate relationships as a crime, the Greek attitude toward such relationships was inconceivable.
Greek hegemony in the Holy Land (beginning with the conquest of Alexander the Great) meant increased Hellenistic influence in the country. Prior to Alexander’s annexation, Greek colonists were relatively few in number and had limited their scope of influence to the coast. They did not penetrate the internal areas occupied by the Jews and Samaritans.
About the Author: Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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