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Athens and Jerusalem – or Israel and Egypt?

There is a conventional philosophical wisdom that Western tradition stands on two pillars: Athens and Jerusalem. This theory sees Jerusalem as obedience to revealed divine law, and Athens as the power of reason and free inquiry.

For much of Western Civilization, it is easy to see why this general pattern would seem true. After all, Greece was the origin of so much human creativity, and of logical “truths” in everything from geometry to philosophy. It certainly was the petri dish for dueling schools of thought on the nature of so much of our world, in addition to being a source of so much sculpture and architecture.

And yet.

The first problem is that the idea of Jerusalem as “humble obedience” is nothing more than a straw man. Judaism is not about humble obedience; it is a marriage between G-d and man, an ever-flowing dynamic of arguments and passions founded on the energies of our forefathers and of the Jewish people in the wilderness. Not a single marriage in the Torah would fall under the description of “humble obedience.”[1] A husband or wife in a Jewish married couple today cannot even say the words “humble obedience” with a straight face.

The second problem is that Athens, as an explanation for life, has fallen far, far short of its billing. Reason does not discover truth! At least not a truth that anyone actually is willing to stake their lives on. Instead, reason has become merely a tool to be used by anyone seeking to justify their self-interest. Reason is a mercenary that can be called into service to support any philosophy under the sun.

In other words, Athens is not a viable alternative. Lacking a foundation of its own, reason has often wiggled far beyond a search of truth. In the times of the ancient Greeks, and again in the modern age, “reason” has become nothing more than an apologist for the most heinous crimes, ranging from infanticide to euthanasia to genocide.[2] Reason was the defining cry of Marxism and the philosophes who justified the French Revolution and the following Reign of Terror. There is no moral truth to be found within its walls.

Nevertheless, there is nothing about the Torah that excludes reason or inquiry from our lives; on the contrary! Jerusalem does not stand for the view that truth is delivered through the insights of revelation, but that revelation provides the hard rock upon which any kind of edifice can be built. Revelation is the launching pad for mankind’s hopes and dreams. Reason, and scientific enquiry and technology and engineering are all useful tools, and can be used to build good or ill. It really depends on the choice of the foundation-stone itself.

But modern philosophers have it at least partially right: there IS a basic dichotomy which contrasts with Jerusalem, with the Torah. That contrast is not with Greek or Roman thought. Instead, the Torah tells us, from the life on Avraham onward, that the choice of every person is between Israel and Egypt.

Egypt represents the natural world. It is a place where one succeeds merely through harmonizing with the world, of making peace with the natural cycles. It, like all primitive pagan societies, is a place in which no personal or technological growth is required, and so that growth rarely takes place. After all, in such a world view, reaching higher is presumptuous to the gods – presumptuous to nature. In an Egyptian world view, man is a human primate, one animal among many, with no claim to supremacy over the animal and vegetable and mineral kingdoms.

Today, we live in a world where reason has utterly failed. Not only is it unable to tell us what is good (morality has been discarded like your father’s Oldsmobile), but it has even failed to make a convincing argument for any sort of governing principles at all. And so in our enlightened press, people call for the emulation of China’s totalitarianism, for seeking autocratic solutions to what should be democratic challenges. Reason has been exposed: it has no moral code of its own, and conforms to fight on behalf of whomever happens to be wielding it at the moment.

This claim is not justified through revelation or the Torah, but on simple observation of the modern world, a world in which mankind’s technological marvels have accomplished so very much, but all the computational logic available to billions of people has not done anything to advance human wisdom. On the contrary: technology, the product of vast amounts of scientific inquiry and engineering development, is itself agnostic on good and evil, unable to lend any moral insight at all. Morality remains only in the hands of people, who now have more power than ever before, but less guidance in how that power should be used.

So in a world of Reason, morality defaults to one of two options: Torah, and Egypt. Those who follow at least the most basic Torah ideas believe in the sanctity of human life (for each soul is from G-d), and they believe that G-d wants us to do more than merely appease Him – he wants us to improve ourselves.

In today’s “modern” age of rational atheism, the new gods are the very same old ones, with only-slightly-updated names: Nature, Sustainability, Mother Earth, the Planet, the Environment. And the underlying message would be instantly recognizable to a citizen of Athens or the Nile River Delta:

“Recycle that soda can, or the gods will punish you with hurricanes!”

“Kill the unborn, to save the planet from overpopulation!”

These appeals to emotional, pseudo-religious words like “sustainable” and “organic” and “natural” are all appeals to Egypt, to the part of us that craves to live as an animal, to coexist with the planet and synchronize with its cycles. And in this world, everything that is “Natural” becomes a good in itself. Our basest desires – especially the most hedonistic ones – become justified on the simple basis that because we want something, that thing must be good. And thus Good and Bad are defined by our choice of deity. Logic is a mere hired hand, defending whatever morality we select.

  1. Think of Avraham or Sarah. Or the circumcision of Moshe and Tziporah’s sons
  2. Only in the abstract and self-referential fields such as mathematics has Greek thought truly led to truth.

Comments are welcome!

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