The Velvet Kippah
Chanuka: A Contest Between Two Civilizations
It is not only highbrow exhibits of weird art that demand a pass in the name of the aesthetic. Huge numbers of people hang on to every word and gesture of people who somehow look good. They look fabulous, so they must be fabulous. They may be actors and actresses, or sports figures. Often, they distinguish themselves for their lack of education and common sense, but their endorsements of anything from products to politicians matter, defying reason. Their esthetic wins out, as Greece originally triumphed over Jerusalem.
The old clash is far from over. At times, it takes humankind to places it would not expect.
For all his appreciation of the Jewish contribution, Arnold mourned the effects of the ascendance of Hebraism. Having produced a surfeit of "man's perceiving and knowing side, this unnatural defect of his feeling and acting side, provoked a reaction." There had to be a backlash to too much conscience. Arnold championed the return to nature, the "relaxation ... of the moral fibre." Nineteenth-century Europe, he said, was fighting off the shackles of a moral repression forged by Judaism.
He turned out to be prophetic. The return to Hellenism produced advances in science which have "now made visible to everybody the great and pregnant elements of difference which lie in race. . . . Hellenism is of Indo-European growth, Hebraism is of Semitic growth; and we English, a nation of Indo- European stock, seem to belong naturally to the movement of Hellenism." (Culture and Anarchy, 1869)
Arnold started down a road of Indo-European supremacy. Those who continued on the road found a different name for Indo-European stock, calling it "Aryan," especially in regard to Nordic peoples like Swedes.
That road led straight to Majdanek, and took the lives of millions—both Jews who were targeted, and modern-day Greeks who resisted it.
The ancient Greeks wonderfully enriched the world with their contributions to drama and art. In the millennia since then, the aesthetic, as well as the desire to throw off the shackles of conscience, often runs amok, sometimes into depravity. Chanuka assures the world that Man will have limits and insight restraining him from abandoning decency and principle. At times and places, those limits either fail or are shut out—as in the art gallery in Lund. Chanuka's message, however, will remain around to illuminate the world well after that Swedish artist is forgotten.
Happy Chanuka, World!
Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi who directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and chairs Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is hopelessly addicted to the serious study of Torah texts.