As a Bible believer, is it best for us to follow only Biblical guidelines rather than learning the positive values from other cultures, such as Japanese or Chinese cultural values? I thought this would enrich our lives as well as our Biblical learning, but may not be what the Bible guidelines suggest us to do.
Thank you as always, Rabbi Lapin.
You do ask interesting questions. This question is particularly apt because we are answering your question today, which is the eighth and final day of Chanukah. Despite popular attempts to make the historical battle of Chanukah sound politically correct by portraying it just as a long-ago fight for religious freedom, the holiday actually represents, for all time, the internal battle between those faithful to their faith and those who want to resculpt their faith to fit into the popular culture.
The dominant culture of that time was (Syrian-Greek) Hellenism and many Jews became Hellenists. As a matter of fact, the ancient historian Josephus records how the most popular cosmetic surgery back then, twenty-one hundred years ago, was Hellenized Jews undergoing foreskin restoration procedures.
However, the Syrian-Greeks did not, like other cultures, want to exterminate Jews. They didn’t even demand an abandonment of Judaism. They demanded that Judaism become subservient. If a conflict existed between their values and Judaism, Torah, the constitution of Judaism, took second place. (I’m sure you see the parallels to today.) For instance, as we hinted at earlier, Hellenists saw the body as perfect and the gymnasium as a temple, thus they forbade circumcision. Loyal and faithful Hebrews continued to maintain that ritual. The Maccabees , those who fought the battle, insisted that in every way, Torah values are always paramount.
However, we don’t reject every idea of Hellenism outright. In Genesis 9:27, God blesses the father of the Greek nation with a gift for beauty. However, and this is vital, He praises it when it “dwells in the tents of Shem.” In other words, ancient Jewish wisdom recognizes that there are legitimate values to be found in the nations, meaning nations other than those who follow the Torah. The primary condition for accessing that wisdom is that it must always be viewed through the prism of Torah; the Torah mustn’t be judged through its prism.
Today, for instance, in several cultures gender is viewed as fluid and subject to an individual’s choice. Measured against Scripture’s, “Male and female He created them,” we have to reject the popular view as false. It’s as if we have a foolproof nonsense detector which we can use to measure the value and authenticity of all ideas.
Not only is there no need to reject learning from many cultures; it would be foolish to do so. However, to explore the values of other cultures one has to feel secure in judging all aspects of those cultures against the Truth and rejecting any ideas that conflict with God’s vision, no matter how tempting, rational or popular they may sound.
Enjoy your studies,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin