Alexander set out to conquer to world. Like conquerors before and since, his goal was not simply world domination; he wanted to spread a certain message. He was motivated by a vision. More famously, the Roman Emperor Constantine beheld a vision of a Crucifix emblazoned with the words “in hoc signo vinces” before a major battle with a rival, in an episode which moved the Roman Empire toward embracing Christianity.
Alexander had a different vision. He had absorbed the best that Greece had to offer (Aristotle was his private tutor; not bad), and set out to introduce this anthropocentric worldview to the rest of humanity, overwhelming indigenous culture wherever he could.
The Jews, on the other hand, feared that they would meet the same fate as the rest of the world’s cultures: overwhelmed and all but eradicated by Hellenism. Shimon Ha-tzaddik dressed – enveloped himself in – the garb of priesthood. The garments of priesthood, for God’s ‘honor and splendor’, announce God’s presence within this world. They bespeak of a guardianship that the Jewish people share, that God’s Name, in this world, is dependent upon them; that they must carry themselves in a manner consistent with their mission. Israel’s role amongst the nations is indeed that of priest – to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ – and this, more than anything else, must survive the confrontation with Greece. It’s hard to know what the plan was when confronting Alexander, or if there was a plan, but it doesn’t seem terribly important.
Alexander, representing the best of Greece, and Shimon Ha-tzaddik, representing the Jewish priesthood, the meaning and role of the Jews amongst the nations, and the vision articulated by the ancient Jewish prophets, are on the road to confrontation, yet neither knows what to expect from the other; all are ‘in the dark’, though antagonism is presumed. As they near each other, once they can see each other, attitudes can begin to soften. Darkness can begin to lift. Daylight begins when each truly beholds the other.
At that moment, Alexander bows before Shimon, and recognized that Shimon, all along, is the vision that motivates him to conquer. Shimon represents that which is most noble about man, most godly about man, and it is this vision of man that truly motivates Alexander.
It must be noted that Chaza”l’s vision doesn’t really reflect any actual relation between Judaism and Hellenism; it’s their articulation of an ideal hierarchy, where Greek culture would acknowledge the Divinity that underlies Humanity and the Jewish role in bearing that message of Divinity.
b) Shimon Ha-Tzaddik, the Nazir, and the Narcissist: A reading of Nedarim 9b
[The Halakhic scenario that the Gemara presents is the subject of a dispute amongst the Rishonim; ayen sham, ve-acamo”l]
Simeon the Just said: Only once in my life have I eaten of the trespass-offering brought by a defiled nazir. On one occasion a nazir came from the South country, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was of handsome appearance, and with thick locks of hair symmetrically arranged. Said I to him: ‘My son, what [reason] did you see to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?’ He replied: ‘I was a shepherd for my father in my town. [Once] I went to draw water from a well, gazed upon my reflection in the water, whereupon my evil desires rushed upon me and sought to drive me from the world [through sin]. But I said unto it [my lust]: "Wretch! why dost thou take in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to become worms and dust? I swear that I will shave you off [his beautiful hair] for the sake of Heaven."’ l immediately arose and kissed his head, saying: ‘My son, may there be many nazirites such as thou in Israel! Of you the Torah says, “When either a man or a woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a nazirite, to separate themselves unto the Lord.”This story recalls the Greek myth of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, and tragically dies because he can’t pull himself away. There are a number of versions of the myth, and though it seems likely that Chaza”l would have been familiar with some version of it (after all, they knew of Homer – see Mishna Yadayim 4:6). The myth of Narcissus describes a fatal inability to understand others in any way but as a reflection of one’s self. Narcissus, in many versions of the myth, is not even aware that the image that he is enamored with is his own. He is unable to break out of a mindset in which one loves the other only to the extent that he can see himself in the other.
In the Gemara, the youth succeeds in overcoming the fatal cycle of self love, by destroying his own beauty. Forcing himself to come to grips with a world that is ‘not his’.
The appearance of Shimon Ha-tzadik in a tale which closely parallels a Greek myth once again suggests that Chaza”l are trying to communicate an element of their attitude toward Hellenism.
The great sin of Western culture, the progeny of Greece, has been narcissism. There is an unwillingness and inability to evaluate others – other nations, other cultures, etc. – except to the degree that it sees itself within. It attempts to digest and reduce the whole world to the categories of its own thought. There’s no room for anything ‘other’. It can only contemplate itself.
Shimon is wary of this trend, wary even of nazirites who hold themselves aloof, who take upon these vows not for God, but because of self-consciousness (cf. this Gemara’s parallel on Ta’anit 10a and Nazir 4b). This Nazir demonstrates his disinterestedness in his own world by vowing to shave his beautiful hair. He sublimates his own beauty to God’s world, releasing himself from the self-destruction that would have resulted from his continued occupation of his own world. Shimon Ha-Tzadik is thus affirming disinterestedness, un-self-consciousness, and other-awareness as the antidote to the Narcissism inherent in Greek culture.
For further explanation, see the chapter entitled "The Youth of Israel" in Levinas' Nine Talmudic Readings, especially pp. 126-7.