The prayer added to the liturgy during Hanukkah thanks God for the victory over the Syrian Greeks by the Hasmoneans, a victory of “the weak over the strong, the few over the many.” While the Jews did indeed win the war, the conflict between Judaism and Hellenism persists and the outcome remains in doubt.
Among the ancient Greeks, Protagoras argued that: “Man is the measure of all things.” In his anthropocentric view of the world, it is the individual human being, rather than God or some eternal law, that determines value and worth. This view is not just a preview of atheism, it is also the harbinger of moral relativism. While Judaism maintains that there are eternal truths incumbent upon all people to acknowledge and uphold, Hellenism rejects any such notion.
The Greeks honored heroes: men of great prowess, cunning, and physical strength. The Jews honored a different kind of heroes: people of supreme kindness, empathy, and compassion. Greek philosophers searched for answers to the question of why the world is as it is. Jewish thinkers searched for answers to the question of how the world can be better than it is. The Greeks were obsessed with beauty; Jews remain obsessed with duty. To the Hellenist, says Rabbi S. M. Lehrman, everything that was externally beautiful was good. To the Jew, everything that was inwardly good was beautiful.
Hellenism freed humanity from the shackles of tradition and opened the possibility for each person to excel by breaking the norms and finding your own path and this is enormously attractive, even seductive. Free-thinking, scientific discovery, and personal growth and exploration are all consequences of the Greek outlook. No wonder that long ago as much as today some Jews found Hellenism appealing.
Hanukkah reminds us that Hellenism and its more modern manifestation of secularism are both strong and popular. Yet without universal principles of justice and goodness, kindness and compassion that all people are obliged to maintain, humanity will be the poorer. Perhaps that is why we place the Hanukkah menorah in public view. It is a hope that those who are drawn away from the values Judaism represents will see the light.