As the festival of Hanukka is coming to an end, and as a tribute to our heroic ancestors who freed us from the Hellenic civilization, I would like to share with the readers of Halakha of the Day, some thoughts on the comparison between Jewish values and the values of the ancient Greek civilization.
For this, I will be based my words primarily on a book written by Rabbi Ken Spiro “World Perfect”, which I strongly recommend reading, and other sources. I seriously warn the readers that the issue we will explore today is extremely harsh, and it may hurt sensibilities. It is, nevertheless, the historical truth. And it will help us to appreciating some aspects of the celebration of Hanukka, our triumph over the Greek civilization, which usually are ignored.
While in modern gentile society there are still debates on the subject of abortion, no one would dispute the right to life of a child, once that child is born. Where does this principle come from? Is it an innate value in the minds and hearts of all human beings of all time? Is it, perhaps, part of the so-called “universal ethics”?
In Judaism the right to life is a fundamental principal. For example: Jewish law allows abortion when in the life of the mother in in danger. But that is before the process of birth begins. Once the baby’s head is outside the body of the mother, the two lives are of the same value and importance. The preservation of life, since a baby is born, is and it was throughout the history of the Jewish people, an absolute and sacred principle. Our sages among other things said: “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if he destroys all mankind”. This includes also, or perhaps above all, the life of a newborn baby, regardless of the physical conditions that baby was born with.
In ancient Greek society this was not the case. Greeks (and later on Romans) practiced infanticide. That is, killing newborn children as a form of population control, sex selection and as the usual way to get rid of people who would cost a lot to maintain and would not bring any benefit to society.
Ken Spiro writes: “A baby that appeared weak or sickly at birth, or had even a minor birth defect such a cleft pallet, hair lip, or cleft foot, or was in some other way imperfect was killed. This was not done by some Nazi-like baby removal squad. This was done by an immediate member of the family, usually the mother or father, and usually within three days after birth. The method of “disposal” varied, but generally we know that, in antiquity, babies were taken out to the forest and left to die of exposure, dropped down wells to drown, or thrown into sewers or onto manure piles. The horror of a parent being capable of killing his or her child is shocking enough. But that this parent should have so little regard for the child, as to unmercifully dump it where it might die slowly and painfully, or be picked up by someone to be reared into slavery or prostitution (as sometimes happened), suggests a level of cruelty beyond our modern imagination. Lloyd DeMause in his essay “The Evolution of Childhood” (pp. 25-26) reports: “Infanticide during antiquity has usually been played down despite literally hundreds of clear references by ancient writers that it was an accepted, everyday occurrence. Children were thrown into rivers, flung into dung-heaps and cess trenches, ‘potted’ in jars to starve to death, and exposed in every hill and roadside, ‘a prey for birds, food for wild beasts to rend.’ (Euripides, Ion, 504)” So when a baby was born weak or sick, or if the baby was suffering from some physical defect of birth, even if your lip or foot were slightly split, were killed at birth. This removal was not performed by a squadron of removing babies, but by an immediate family member, usually the mother or father. And usually within three days after birth. The method of the “elimination” varied. But it is generally known that in ancient Greece, babies were taken to the forest and left to die by default, they are dropped into a pit or threw them into a river where they died by drowning, etc.”
DeMausse writes: “Until the fourth century A.D., neither law nor public opinion found infanticide wrong in either Greece or Rome. The great philosophers agreed. Those few passages which classicists consider as a condemnation of infanticide seem to me to indicate just the opposite, such as Aristotle’s “As to exposing or rearing the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared; but on the ground of number of children, if the regular customs hinder any of those born being exposed, there must be a limit filed to the procreation of offspring.” Similarly, Musonius Rufus, sometimes called “The Roman Socrates,” is often quoted as opposing infanticide, but his piece “Should Every Child That Is Born Be Raised?” quite clearly only says that since brothers are very useful they should not be killed. But more ancient writers openly approved of infanticide, saying, like Aristippus, that a man could do what he wants with his children, for “do we not cast away from us our spittle, lice and such like, as things unprofitable, which nevertheless are engendered and bred even out of our own selves.”Or like Seneca, they pretend only sickly infants are involved: ‘Mad dogs we knock on the head; the fierce and savage ox we slay; sickly sheep we put to the knife to keep them from infecting the flock; unnatural progeny we destroy; we drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound. (To read the full article of DeMause click here).
One might think that, as we say today, moral values are essentially “democratic” values. And as such, these values and mores probably come from the civilization that was the cradle of democracy: the ancient Greek civilization (the word “democracy” comes from the Greek, δημοκρατία). And it is indeed true that we inherited from ancient Greece architecture, arts, sports, aesthetics and many other positive things. But ethics was NOT one of them. Although the word “ethics” also comes from the Greek, the “ethical practices” of the ancient Greeks, as we began to see today, were radically different from the moral values of our modern society.
Modern ethics, respect for life, for example, is based exclusively on ancient Jewish ethics. These are the values for which our ancestors, the Hashmonayim, fought against the Greeks. It is also, and perhaps above all, the preservation of Jewish ethics, the ethics of the Tora, what we celebrate on Hanukka.