Chanukah is treated in the Talmud in a rather puzzling fashion. In response to the question, “What is Chanukah?” the Talmud relates the story of the cruse of undefiled oil found by a priest in the Temple. Why this relatively minor incident, to the exclusion of almost everything else? Would we not expect the Talmud to relate the intolerable Greek oppression, the betrayal by the Jewish Hellenists, the heroic struggle of loyal Jews to observe the Torah under pain of death, or the battles of Matityahu, Yehudah HaMaccabee and his valiant brothers against an overwhelming foe?
The miracle of how a bit of oil, good for only one day, which lasted for eight, is no doubt unusual, even fascinating and significant. But, does it rate against the battles, the victory and heroism of a people who fought against impossible odds to restore their freedom, Temple and their very right to live as a people?
The question goes deeper. Why are the Sages so concerned with the dedication of the Temple, and not with the heroism of the Maccabees? Why the emphasis on light and oil, as opposed to the land liberated with fire and blood from an oppressing foe? The puzzle is solved when we appreciate that the significance of Chanukah relates in a very special way to the survival of the unique Jewish spirit as exemplified by Torah and Temple. The Sages want us to realize that the battles and the heroism pale in significance when we consider the lessons to be learned from the confrontation of Greece and Judea in the realm of ideals and ideas.
Throughout history, two distinct types of enemies have challenged the Jews. One practiced genocide, seeking to destroy the Jewish body. Examples of this enemy are Pharaoh who decreed the destruction of all male infants, the Amalekites who attacked the Israelites in the desert, or Haman whose decree, like Hitler’s was “to kill and destroy all Jews, young and old.”
The second enemy is more subtle, but no less dangerous. He seeks not to destroy bodies but the sanctity and uniqueness of the Jewish people by attacking the foundations of ideology and tradition. As stated in the Al HaNisim prayer of Chanukah, “to cause them to forget Thy Torah, and to force them to repudiate Thy Commandments.” It is the life and death struggle of Torah truth with secular culture, amoral beauty and profane worldly power.
Chanukah is the prototype of the second type of struggle, and it has a special message for American Jews. While American Jews are safe physically, secular culture has a powerful tendency to assimilate the Jew by watering down the Jewish content and commitment of our lives, by causing the neglect of study and observance and by gradually dissolving the Jews bonds with a unique history and destiny. How is this accomplished? By worshiping things, money, and pleasure instead of striving for direction, purpose, and commitment to eternal ideals which reach beyond the gratification of the physical senses.
Because the essence of Chanukah is the battle of ideas more than the battle of armies, we must have a deeper appreciation of how the situation then parallels ours today.
In the wake of the spectacular conquests of Alexander the Great, the Greeks at the time of the Maccabees established Greek cities and planted Greek culture, art, music, philosophy, and sport in every corner of the known world. In its day, Greek culture held an even more dominant position than American culture occupies in today’s world.
Most nations found Greek culture attractive and willingly accepted it, superimposing it onto, and integrating it into their own cultures. Before long, Hellenism became a world culture, dictating standards, goals, and styles to all. Only one people refused with dogged firmness to be “civilized.” Puzzled over this people’s strange unwillingness to accept that which everyone else found so enchanting, the Greeks, at first, respected the cold shoulder the Judeans gave their civilization. They discerned a unique element in the Jews they had yet to encounter in any other people. One Greek writer called the Jews “a nation of philosophers.” He had observed how this strange nation, in groups large and small, was engaged from one end of its small country to the other in its own “national sport,” the study of Torah.
To understand the conflict of Jew and Greek, of Torah and Hellenism, turn to the eighth chapter of Genesis where, after the Great Flood, Noah relates a prophecy to his three sons, Shem, Cham, and Yafet. Each son was destined to be the founding father of one of the principal branches of civilization. Shem, the Near Eastern Semite or Jew; Yafet, the European Greek; and Cham, the African or Canaanite. Noah’s words were, “G-d will give the Greeks control over the expanse of the earth, particularly over the aesthetic element of civilization, but He (G-d) will dwell in the tents of Shem” . . . i.e., with the Jews.
The Jew and the Greek were the standard bearers of the two spiritual elements which mark the decisive struggle for the mind of man; the two elements which in the history of civilization exerted the major influences in shaping the laws, institutions and ideals of mankind.
The Greek deified physical perfection. His life’s concern was external beauty, the beauty of the body and of things. He was concerned with symmetry and harmony, with art, music, sculpture, architecture, song and dance. Greek philosophy and science were concerned with the ideal of the physical structure and perfection of political society. They were concerned only with those things that are in and of this world, limited by time and space. Their idealism was limited to what man could see, touch, hear, and smell. They ignored what man is and can become when he reaches beyond himself and this world, out to G-d.
In the pagan view, the gods were not the source of all that is — the gods were rooted in this world, bound by its nature and subject to its laws. The concept of a Divine will, sovereign and absolute, which governs all and is the cause of all being, was unknown in paganism. To the pagan mind, there are independent, autonomous forces in the world which limit the Divine. Fate, for example, controls the gods as well as man.
The Greek concept of a deity was based on fantasy, mythology and magic. The Pantheon was a lively community of gods and goddesses who love and hate, fight and make peace; eat, drink and procreate. The ultimate force guiding the world was not an ethical, loving merciful G-d, but “necessity” and “fate,” which are blind, subject to dark, unknown magical forces.
Behind the refined well-mannered Greek gentlemen, the Jew saw a world that had no living faith, with state supported pagan temples whose gods no one really believed in.
By the time they encountered the Jews, the Greeks’ old pagan worship was all but dead. The gods of Mt. Olympus were not taken much more seriously than Santa Claus. With their passing, the philosophers turned to metaphysical abstractions, impractical dreams about utopian cities and perfect societies. The masses, left without a meaningful faith, turned to cynical skepticism, superstitious cults and fads. They went from one blind extreme to another, on one hand believing nothing, and on the other, accepting the most astonishing nonsense, no matter how absurd. As organized “religion” decayed, magicians, astrologers, amulet writers and charlatans grew in number. Even when organized paganism crumbled, people still thought that the wildest, stupidest ritual act, the strangest ceremony or sacrifice, almost any charm or formula had the power to help control the fickle, unpredictable “gods.” The religious desperation in the decaying Greek-Roman world can be seen from how eagerly this world was later to accept Christianity which filled pagan forms with some elements of Jewish content.
On the other hand, despite political instability and subjugation by other nations, the Jew lives in the certainty that life is worthwhile, that it has direction and purpose, that the nation’s destiny as well as his own is the special concern of the one all powerful G-d Who created the universe. The Jew’s faith is reasonable and logical; it is based on revelation — a revelation which has stood the test of time, logic and life. This faith presents the Jew with a consistent system of laws and practices which constructively govern every phase of life. The most basic Jewish conviction is that G-d is supreme. There is no realm or power above or beside Him. He is absolutely sovereign. No laws, forces, or powers transcend Him.
Despite its surface glitter, to the thinking, knowing Jew, the Greek world offered nothing but degenerate paganism. It was a grand floating night club filled with music, wine, dancing girls and wild all night orgies. But the engine was shot, the crew tired, the fuel tanks empty, the heatless ship filled with holes and cracks bound to sink at any moment.
While the Greek possessed the polished finesse of the gentleman, he lacked basic values. While he had surface culture, when stripped of the veneer of his fancy front, he was, in essence a barbarian.
To the Jew life was sacred; each human being had worth and dignity. Since each person possessed G-dliness, he was of infinite significance. The Jew opposed all forms of human exploitation. Unlike the pagans, Jewish courts were reluctant to impose capital punishment. They had long found that slavery was economically unprofitable, because of the high standard of living in which the “master” was required to maintain the “slave,” by Torah law.
While the Greeks worshipped form, beauty, and the power of the body, they had no reverence for life. The economic basis of Greek society was brutal inhuman slavery, and most of the population of the Greek cities were slaves. Human life was cheap. Man was a thing, to be used and abused at the masters’ will.
Unique too was the Jew’s concept of humility, dignity, and family. To the Jew, the physical function of sex was good and essential, the foundation of a healthy, stable, and closely knit family. Used correctly, it is the instinct on which family and society is established. Sex was neither an evil to be avoided nor an instrument for sensual bestiality, to be abused or flaunted. It is an essential function, guarded and sanctified by the laws of the Torah and the institutions of marriage and home.
In contrast, the Greek world seesawed from the extremes of complete abstinence from the flesh, which was fed by deep guilt and uneasiness, to widespread sensual excesses, drunken parties, pornographic literature and perverted practices.
While the Jewish man generally lived a normal family life, respected and loved his wife, and considered the family home the basic structure on which to develop a life of purpose, the Greek man needed his wife only to bear and nurture children. He often fled the home to develop social outlets in the company of courtesans.
While most conquered nations succumbed to the allure of Greek music, art, architecture, drama, and philosophy, the Jew saw beyond the cultural veneer and detected the deep fundamental voids and basic lacks in every aspect of Greek life.
Even in his ideal “Utopia,” the Greek philosopher Plato assigns the masses to bondage and slavery. Aristotle states that some humans are naturally slaves. Only the Jew developed a sense of identification with the oppressed and lived by laws which protected the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.
Greek literature and theater glorified violence and sex. The worship of the physical brought about the sensual worship of the body. The result was a life of “drunken orgies,” a loss of self-control, and in the final count, of true human freedom and dignity. Enslaved to the body and its desires, the Greek was not his own master. He lived a life of inner pessimism, doubt and “fate.” His art and culture served base ends rather than becoming means to higher ends. Greek civilization was dead; it died because it had nowhere to go. It died because aesthetic, physical, and “intellectual” perfection are not sufficient for man. Instead of becoming the master of the world through his concern with the physical, the physical world overpowered him and led to ultimate decay.
The Jews who came into contact with the Greeks through business and government were exposed to the pleasant side of Greek life and were tempted to break loose from the restraining control of the commandments and taste of the excitements and pleasures of their masters. Many Jews copied Greek dress and language, attended their theaters, amusements and sports; and, because the Jew generally carries whatever he does to its logical conclusion, many paid lip service to Greek pagan gods as well. Not that they believed in them, even the Greeks had ceased to believe in them, but because Greek religion was civic in nature, almost every facet of Greek life involved some form of worship.
Gradually, these Jews became Greek “goyim.” Since they did not abandon their Jewishness in name, the threat was greater. Hellenized Jews hoped to fill their lives and the life of the Jewish land with Greek content. Instead of betraying their people by abandoning them, they attempted to remake them by “reforming” them. It is essential that we be aware that this voluntary betrayal of Judaism by many priests and upper class Jews preceded the decrees of King Antiochus; without them, Antiochus would never have interfered in the inner life of the Jewish people.
Only when the Greeks saw that many Jews were prepared to betray their way of life, did Antiochus find the courage to prohibit “on pain of death,” the study of Torah, the practice of Circumcision, the observance of Shabbat and Divine worship, even to the extent of erecting a statue of Zeus in the Temple and sacrificing pig on the altar.
The true enemies of the Jews were not the Greeks — but the “reform” Jews who betrayed the Torah, abandoned the Commandments and accepted Greek ways. This was an internal national struggle for the soul of the Jew — the two sides were the “Torahists” and “Hellenists.” Their struggle is similar to the conflict of traditionalists and the various reforming branches of American Judaism who clothe non-Jewish concepts in Jewish dress, who use the terms “Torah,” “G-d,” and even “Shabbat,” but mean something entirely different from the time honored concepts. At the crux of the Chanukah struggle was not the battle with the Greeks, but the ideological civil war with those who hoped to reform the spiritual foundations of Jewish peoplehood.
It was at this point in the struggle that the old High Priest drew his sword, unfurled his flag, and proclaimed the battle which was victorious with the help of G-d, “who gave the many into the hands of the few.”
In Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s classic work, “The Kuzari,” the medieval Judeo-Spanish Jewish thinker summarized the conflict between the “tents” of the Jews and the “beauty” of the Greeks. Time has not erased the basic differences that delineate western civilization and the classic Jewish view of civilization. The battle rages on. Arrayed on the front lines in this battle are the same people, torn by deeply ingrained Jewishness at one pole, and the attractions of “modern,” secular civilization on the other.
Halevi writes in “The Kuzari” that, “the foundation of Greek wisdom is the flower, not the fruit.” Flowers in his analogy represent beauty; its fragrance, color, symmetry, form and charm; its appeal to the senses. But the flower does not last, its appeal is limited, it soon dies. Most of all, it is not life giving. Fruit symbolizes the core of the individual, man’s struggle for goals and purpose. Fruit provides nourishment, sustains life, and bears the seeds of the future. Fruit does not deceive, its external charms are a true reflection of a tasty, nutritional, meaty inside.
Contemporary culture comes to us in the form of the Greek flower, with its emphasis on externals, aesthetics, leisure, and recreation, form without inner content. America is a nation of spectators, not participants. We speak of people, but are callous to individuals.
Many practice Judaism without religious commandments; a religion stripped of Shabbat, Kashrut, family laws, and sanctity. Many Jews are content with “flowers,” but are unconcerned with the fruit. Even in so-called “religious” institutions, there is an emphasis on buildings, size, membership, prestige, and power. There are great budgets, prestigious organizations, magnificent press relations — Too often, these are little but window dressing. Who searches for the truth, who is immersed in the fruit? Who is concerned for the individual, his needs and character, his growth in Torah? Isn’t this the real message of Chanukah? Those who will survive as Jews are those concerned with individuals. The first individual we must be concerned with is one’s self, with our own depth, our Torah knowledge, our striving for individual growth.
Chanukah proclaims the faith and certainty that victory is ours, that there is nothing to fear but our own lack of integrity and truth, our own failure to pass on untarnished, the values of our Heritage to our children. The Maccabees were, after all, a conquered people facing the greatest military power on earth. They lacked a government, an army, training, and arms. Yet, they proclaimed the battle. It was won, not because of their faith in arms, but because of their faith in an invisible, but much present G-d. It is the individual who shines forth in the events of Chanukah.
Man was created “alone,” so that he can, in the words of the Sages, fearlessly proclaim — “for me was the world created.” One old priest proclaimed the battle, another had faith and lit a single cruse of oil. His concern was light, the light of Torah. With this fight and his faith, tomorrow’s oil would surely be found. Here is revealed the miracle of Divine power. Enemies from without and within rage against us. So long as there remains one Jew in whom the spark of faith and courage shines in but one small village, ready to take up the sword and unfurl the flag, there is no need to fear. One pure spark can set the flame afire. Man need only preserve and light it. G-d will guarantee the continuity of its light. “He who comes to purify — is assisted from above.”
“All may forsake the Torah and bow to the gods of the Greeks — but I will not,” declared Matityahu. One loyal house can withstand an entire community. One Abraham, alone, opposed by all, can kindle an entire world. One with G-d is a majority.
No wonder the key to the meaning of Chanukah is found in the cruse of oil. No wonder this incident, almost to the exclusion of others, is highlighted in the brief account in the Talmud.
The commandment of Chanukah is that each household kindle a light. The Sages wisely extended the commandment such that a candle is provided for each person in the house; light and the individual are the essential elements of Chanukah. We begin with one light and add a new light each night. “When it comes to holiness, we increase and do not diminish.” He who does not advance, retreats; the tiny flame must be made to glow brighter. Finally, the Chanukah light is placed at the entrance, near the door — in order to publicize the miracle. The light in one home will be seen by neighbors, and may stimulate them to bring light into their home.
This is the Jewish destiny, — to be a “light to the nations” — “or la ‘goyim,” to be the “spokesman of G-dliness among the nations.” The light of Chanukah is small. If each individual Jew keeps his light pure, this small light will grow and radiate over the entire world.