Greek Life

by Rachel Eden November 27, 2018


I was captivated by her maturity, thoughtfulness and optimism. She’s one of 25 students who participate in a weekly Jewish learning program I run for San Diego State University. We were meeting over coffee for the first time. Her hair wasn’t blow dried or curled. She didn’t wear makeup. Her clothes were simple and she spoke quietly. I hadn’t noticed her amidst the group of students, and yet, within the first 10 minutes of our coffee date, her brilliant inner beauty shone through. She was radiant.

Fort Collins, Colorado, USA - May 30, 2013: Sigma Phi Epsilon, one of the many fraternity houses in Fort Collins which is home to CSU, Colorado State University.

I’ll call her Sarah. Sarah is in a sorority because she, like so many students in college, hoped joining Greek life would afford her social opportunities and friendships that she wouldn’t experience otherwise. The students I encounter have a healthy, balanced attitude toward school. They want to do well academically but they also understand the importance of successful living in general – from psychological health to spiritual connection.

As Sarah and I were talking, she mentioned a disturbing phenomenon that occurs on campus. Only fraternities may throw parties (never the sororities) and no girl may enter the party without a digital “invite” displayed on her phone. Fraternity brothers are stationed at the front door of the house to enforce this rule. Here’s the kicker: If the girl has no invitation, then the young men responsible for checking phones will look the girl up and down. Entry is only granted if the girl is pretty enough by the fraternity brothers’ standards. This is a known reality on campus. I was horrified.

This practice reminded me of the Ancient Greek philosophy of exalting the physical body. Hanukkah’s miracle story of the Jewish revolt against the Greek occupation in Israel appears to be a physical war, but the deeper truth is more complex. The war was ideological and the Jewish view of the body, as a vehicle for greatness, directly contradicted the Greek perspective. The military victory of the outnumbered Jews against the Greeks is impressive, but the spiritual victory of Jewish values over Hellenism is dazzling, as symbolized by the menorah’s glowing light.

A few hours after my coffee date with Sarah, I taught a class on vulnerability and identity through Judaism to my students. I mentioned that ‘finding yourself’ in college is a misnomer: Between the suffocating social pressures, the constant academic demands, and the busy dorm life, who has time or quiet to find anything? Least of all an identity? How can anyone be expected to ‘find themselves’ in a state of constant distractions and pressure? Even worse, those subjected to the culture of Greek life are exposing themselves to its dehumanizing, demoralizing atmosphere. My students cheered me on, agreeing with the upside down values they endured by simply maintaining a robust social life.

Evil, as I see it,  is robbing a person of their intrinsic value (their soul) and measuring a person’s worth based on an arbitrary list of superficial qualities. Taking the evil past the fraternity example, this type of judgment is at the core of all discrimination, racism, anti-Semitism and hate crimes against humanity. This is the evil that can be found at the entry point of cattle cars and concentration camps where only gentiles with blonde hair and blue eyes could “join the party” defined as the world, basic human rights and freedom.

By Ancient Greek standards, Sarah should be ignored, dismissed and excluded. After all, she doesn’t appear to spend a lot of money on trendy clothes and she’s not vain. Sarah is attractive but doesn’t seek to attract attention. By Jewish standards, Sarah is a gem to be cherished. She’s compassionate, humble, authentic and deep. She’s a pleasure to talk to and easy to love. Her innate value comes from who she is and not what she looks like. Now that I know her, she’s one of the first people I notice in a room.

Chassidic master of the 18th century, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, describes how each holiday corresponds to a different sense. On Passover, we taste the matzah. On Purim, we listen to the story of Megillat Esther. On Hanukkah, we see the light. We see the light! The beautiful light of Torah wisdom and values. The resplendent light of our internal essential selves. The blinding light of our Creator.  We see more deeply than campus Greek life (okay, maybe that doesn’t take much).

The Greek empire, influenced by the Hellenistic outlook, is described by Jewish sages as choshech, darkness. When we light the menorah, we aren’t changing any aspect of the room we illuminate, and yet everything suddenly looks different. We can see things for what they are. We can see a quiet, non-descript, anxious, bullied Jewish girl as the stunning, beautiful queen she is. We can see the people in our lives as the perfect souls they are. We can focus our intention when we light the menorah, to light up ourselves and illuminate the world.


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