The aesthetic of beauty is central to Hellenic culture. Because its use was meant to obscure beauty’s Divine source, we as Jews could not then, and cannot today, accept it as is. Instead, our task is to adopt beauty with the purpose of Divine ends and reveal its inner holiness. This is what it means to bring “Japheth’s beauty to reside within the tents of Shem.”
The task of refining beauty can be split into eight parts, represented by the eight Biblical Hebrew synonyms for beauty, which obviously correspond to the eight days of Chanukah and the eight candles in the Chanukah Menorah, as well as to the eight sefirot from understanding (binah) to kingdom (malchut). Synonyms in the Bible are meant to represent related aspects of a single concept. Thus, in our review of these eight synonyms for beauty, we will explore what aspect of beauty it represents how that aspect is represented in Judaism, what its Hellenic antithesis is, and how the Chanukah candles allow us to synthesize the two, thereby redeeming the sparks of holiness out of the Hellenic culture.
(שֶׁפֶר) is linguistically related to “improvement.” The Greeks were known for their beautiful and floury language allowing them to articulate and express themselves with grace. However, language, articulation, and expression can become superfluous—a beautiful cover for little or no content. As Jews, we should encourage this variety of beauty as a tool to express genuine, meaningful, content, corresponding to the sefirah of understanding (binah), which is the intellectual faculty we use to expand and develop seminal concepts.
Yofi (יֹפִי) is the collective term for all shades of beauty (just as loving-kindness is the sefirah that accompanies all others( and the word that most Hebrew speakers would use to designate physical beauty. On Chanukah, we celebrate the beauty of the Temple’s altar and the beauty of Jewish self-sacrifice. But the Hellenists worshipped the human body’s beauty. Judaism asserts that physical beauty is vanity. However, when physical beauty is a vessel for inner morals and values, it too becomes valuable, as is the case with the “woman of valor.”
Tov (טוֹב) literally means “good,” but also means goodly, or good-looking. On Chanukah, the “good oil” symbolizes the Torah’s mysteries. Good as beauty primarily expresses moral good, in contrast to evil. To sequester the goodly light of creation (thereby creating the Torah’s concealed dimensions) God used the faculty of might (gevurah). For the Hellenists, moral beauty is achieved through blind justice. But in Judaism, justice that is moral must find a balance between judgment and mercy.
Pe’er (פְּאֵר) represents the sefirah of tiferet, which we usually translate as “beauty,” but which refers to harmony and synthesis. On Chanukah, harmony and synthesis were specifically seen in the Hasmonean’s heritage as priests who integrate the different tones of all the other Tribes of Israel. The Greeks worshipped mathematical beauty, expressed by concepts such as the Golden Ratio. The tool for healing such misguided worship of mathematics and technocracy is the Jewish wisdom of gematria, which reveals the inherent relationship between words and numbers.
Noy (נוֹי) corresponds to the sefirah of victory (netzach), as found in the well-known liturgical hymn Ha’Aderet VeHaEmunah. On Chanukah, we transmute the Hebrew letters of Greece (יָוָן) into this synonym for beauty, Noy (נוֹי), which was best expressed in the Holy Temple’s beauty. In contrast, Greek-Hellenist culture worshipped beauty as expressed in architecture and the human body. Ultimately, however, such beauty is ephemeral, ultimately withering, it “sinks into the muddy depths.” Jewish beauty heals Greek beauty, giving it staying power by directing beauty toward eternal ends.
Hod (הוֹד) is often translated as “splendor” but also means “thanksgiving.” Indeed, on Chanukah we engage in praise and thanksgiving (הַלֵּל וְהוֹדָאָה). This same word also means to admit or concede some transcendent truth, thereby connecting this aspect of beauty with that which we cannot apprehend. Hellenism celebrates the beauty of pagan mythology and the personification of nature’s power, in contrast to Judaism which believes in one God, who also transcends nature. The synthesis of the two and the healing of Greek idolatry comes about when we recognize nature’s power, yet simultaneously recognize its nullification to its Divine source.
Hadar (הָדָר) is associated with the sefirah of foundation (yesod), which corresponds to the procreative organs. This aspect of beauty repairs both our own sexuality as individuals and our ability to create stable long-term relationships (symbolized by the Biblical king Hadar). On Chanukah, we celebrate this aspect of beauty by lighting 36 candles each, a custom designated as Mehadrin min HaMehadrin by the sages. In contrast, the Greek relationship with foundation and with sexuality is based on promiscuity and breaking boundaries. The integration of the two is positive sexuality, where we embrace our sexuality, but do so in a modest way. And channel our energy to guard the covenant of procreation and express it within the context of a loving, committed, and beautiful marital relationship.
Chen (חֵן) denotes symmetrical beauty, as instantiated by the Chanukah Menorah on the last day of Chanukah when the 8 candles exhibit symmetry of 4 and 4. Jews exhibit symmetry with the Almighty. When we channel the quality of lowliness, viewing ourselves as unworthy of Divine favor, the Almighty finds us beautiful and reflects His Divinity within us, in a cosmic display of essential symmetry. This symmetry between the Jewish people and God is evidenced by the miracles He performs on our behalf. In Greek culture, political beauty is exemplified in the Republic led by a philosopher king. The synthesis of the Jewish and Greek models of government is achieved by creating a Jewish republic led by a lowly king who is a disciple of the Torah.
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. Genesis 9:27. Noah had three sons, Japheth was the forefather of the Greek peoples and Shem the forefather of the Semitic peoples including the Jews.
. To complete the correspondence to all ten sefirot, let us add that the shamash (the attendant) candle corresponds to the sefirah of wisdom (chochmah) and the candlelight itself to the crown (keter).
. Regarding the days of Creation, the Zohar (3:103a-b, 3:191b, and elsewhere) states that the first day, corresponding to loving-kindness, accompanies all the other days.
. Proverbs 31:30.
. Ibid. ch. 31.
. Thus, the beauty of the light created on the first day of creation is called “good” (Genesis 1:4) and in reference to physical beauty see Ibid. 26:7.
. Psalms 133:3 and Ecclesiastes 7:1.
. The most harmonious ratio between the height and width of structures and other aspects of geometric shapes which were discovered in ancient Greece.
. Traditionally recited on Shabbat morning.
. Psalms 69:3. The biblical word for “muddy” (יָוָן) has the same letters as “Greece” (יָוָן).
. Genesis 36:39.
. Similar to King David who pronounced, “I will be lowly in my own eyes” (2 Samuel 6:22).