HANUKKA and infanticide in ancient Greek culture


As a tribute to our heroic ancestors who freed us from the Hellenic civilization, I would like to share today with you some thoughts about Jewish values compared to 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, 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 forgotten or 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”? NO. The right to life of a baby is 100% a Jewish value.

In Judaism the right to life is a fundamental principal. For example: Jewish law allows abortion when the life of the mother is 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, before and after a baby is born, is and it was throughout the history of the Jewish people, an absolute and sacred principle. Our sages things said: “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if he destroys all of 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 babies with even slight disabilities or esthetic imperfections.

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. Ken Spiro writes: “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” (see this) writes: “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)” .

DeMausse also writes: “Until the fourth century of the CE., 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.” 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 Seneca: ‘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.”

It is true that from ancient Greece we inherited architecture, the arts, sports, aesthetics and democracy. But what about morality and ethics? Although the word “ethics” comes from the Greek language, many of the ancient Greek ethical practices, as we briefly saw today, were aberrant and totally opposed to the values practiced by the Jewish people, which are also the values of the civilized societies of the modern world. Modern ethics, in regard to respect for life, and in many other cases, is based on Jewish ethics, not Greek.

The modern world owes much to our ancestors, the Hashmonayim, who fought and gave their lives to reject these abominable values of the cruel Greek society.

It is worth knowing more and better the values of Hellenic Greek society to understand that in Hanukka, above all, we celebrate the preservation of Jewish ethics, the ethics of our Tora.