Listening to my Great Courses class on “Daily Life in the Ancient World” by Professor Robert Garland while driving on Thanksgiving morning, I heard something fascinating: The Greeks worshiped their gods, but they never respected them.
All their gods were full of licentiousness, jealousy, pettiness and violence. For example, Cronus, Zeus’s father tried to kill baby Zeus because of a prophecy that this child would eventually usurp him. Beforehand, Cronus had cut off his own father’s reproductive organ with a sickle to overthrow him. Zeus is sometimes considered a god of justice, but his record as a serial philanderer certainly cuts short his claim to be a bastion of morality.
The gods weren’t respectful of one another, nor did they place that demand on humanity. What mattered primarily to the gods was the gifts you gave them.
All this made the gods despicable in the eyes of the Greeks.
Garland says, “It’s an explication of divine motivation that makes complete sense in a world that was much more unpredictable than ours and where natural forces were seen to be in competition with one another, and where humans acted most of the time irrationally and cruelly. The gods were acting out the disorder perceived in the universe.”
Let’s contrast this with the Jewish idea of G-d that we see in our Shabbat prayers.
In our Sim Shalom Siddur (page 18), we recite Psalm 98, “Sing to Adonai a new song, for God has worked wonders. God’s might has been triumphant, revealing supreme power to all. The whole world has seen the triumph of our God. Adonai is coming to rule the earth, to sustain the world with kindness, to judge its people with fairness.”
In Psalm 99 (page 19), “A sovereign, mighty, rules with a love of justice; You alone bring about equity, ordaining justice and compassion for the people of Jacob.”
Yet what planet is our author living on? The Greeks are clearly more in tune with reality, the justice of God is rarely seen.
Where was God’s justice for the policemen recently shot, and the justice and kindness for their children and wives?
Where’s the justice for the victims of ISIS or those killed in concerts in Paris last year or those killed eating pizza in Israel fifteen years ago?
As a believer in a righteous God, I believe in God’s justice, but by and large, it’s hidden from us. Sometimes it takes decades before we make sense out of difficult occurrences in our lives.
We can ask, why did the Greeks come up with chaotic and uncaring gods, while we envisioned a loving and caring God who implements justice?
I posed this question at the Thanksgiving Table. One woman, Dr. Shani Tzoref, a noted Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, posited that perhaps they were composed by Jews hoping for salvation.
Jews were always small in number and almost always dominated by foreign powers in ancient times. Perhaps the belief in a just and kind G-d was not a statement of fact, rather of hope. They hoped their G-d was this way and would hence come to their aid.
During the discourse of this drasha on Shabbat night, Paul Konigstein offered what could be the true answer: that faith in a compassionate God is in our roots. Our foundation story is the Exodus from Egypt. The basis of our people is that we were slaves, we cried out to G-d and He heard us and sent us a savior. Of course we believe in a caring God and hope for Justice, for that’s how our people came into being.
What’s the outcome from the disparity between these two schools of thought? The Greeks dominated the world for a few centuries, but then their empire and religion disintegrated. The Jews never ended up dominating much, but our people, culture and religion have survived the harshest possible conditions and we have influenced the faith of billions of people along the way.
The lesson is being optimistic and upbeat, always believing in help from beyond, works! Whether it’s a self fulfilling prophecy or a real prophecy matters not. The proof is in the pudding: maintaining a belief in the triumph of goodness and in ultimate justice causes G-d or us to bring it about. Minimally, it enables us to continue on and persevere for that yearned for day.
We may need of lot of this optimism in the years ahead.