Hebraism and Hellenism, – between these two points of influence moves our world. Matthew Arnold
First, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness. Thomas Wilson
It was Eric Gruen, in his Heritage and Hellenism, who wrote that the Macabbean revolution sparked a process that helped to define Jewish character for generations to come. Their successes led to an increasing drive for Jewish self-esteem and independent status.
Yet, the festival of Chanukah seems to be surrounded by ambiguity and mystery as to its true essence.When it comes to every Jewish festival there seems to be unanimity as to the essence and nature of the celebration with one notable exception.
The Book of the Maccabees describes the historical background surrounding the story and miracle of Chanukah and puts a focal point surrounding a military battle in the year 164 BCE.
Israel it records, was under the Syrian Greek rule led by Syrian ruler Antiochus who had Hellenised the land of Israel, defiled the temple, and forbidden Jews to practice their faith. It was a small group of Jews led by the elderly priest Matityahu and his sons the Maccabees that rose in revolt. It was an extraordinary victory, a miracle if ever there was one, a band of rebels the Hasmoneans that overpowered the might of the Greek empire. It is in fact this aspect of the Chanukah story that is highlighted in the liturgy of Al Hanisim that we recite on Chanukah “the weak against the strong, the few against the many”.
By contrast, we find in the Talmud a very different story emphasized.
What is Chanukah? Asks the Talmud
The answer given is surprising:
When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they contaminated all its oil. Then when the royal Hasmonean family overpowered and was victorious over them, searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil that was sealed with the seal of the High Priest-enough to light the menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. The following year they established these days of festivity and praise and thanksgiving to G-d.
This seems astonishing. The miracle of the oil, it would seem, was of relatively minor significance relative to the military victory. Furthermore, it was a miracle that occurred behind the closed doors of the Temple, with only a few priests bearing witness to why this aspect of the Chanukah story deserves such prominence. Had the Jews been defeated in the battle with the Greeks there would be no Jews today, had the miracle with the oil not have occurred we would simply have had no excuse to eat latkes and doughnuts?!
The battle wages between Hellenist and Hebrew was far more profound than the tactical, strategic and political victory. It was about the soul of a nation.
The answer is that the battle that was being waged between the Greeks and the Jews at the time of the Chanukah story was in fact something far more profound that went way beyond the physical battle being waged and was highlighted in fact by that single pure flask on oil. The battle wages between Hellenist and Hebrew was far more profound than the tactical, strategic and political victory. It was about the soul of a nation.To appreciate this we will need share a large preface
We know that Jews have won a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes: over twenty percent of them from a group that represents 0.2 per cent of the world population, an over-representation of 100 to one. The thirst for knowledge from the people of the book has propelled us to the forefront of civilizations’ quest for advancement and innovation. From Philo, to Josephus, to Spinoza, to Freud, to Heschel, to Pinker (and everything in between), some of the greatest minds and revolutionary ideas have come from Jews.
Wisdom was central to both the Greeks and Jewish philosophy. Yet they differed in how they viewed the purpose of that wisdom.
Wisdom was central to both the Greeks and Jewish philosophy. Yet they differed in how they viewed the purpose of that wisdom. There is an essential difference between Torah and secular (wisdom). Wisdom, the Sages tell us, is found among the nations. Wisdom need not influence the behavior of the one who possesses it. There have been great geniuses in the arts, humanities and sciences, whose personal characters were nevertheless reprehensible. Their lack of integrity did not detract from their wisdom, and their wisdom added nothing to their character. When Bertrand Russell, then a professor of ethics at City College in New York in the 1940s, was accused of leading a singularly immoral life, he responded that just as he did not need to be a triangle to teach geometry, neither did he have to be a moral person to teach ethics.
Torah, to have been acquired, on the other hand, must influence the behaviour and character of the one who studies it to qualify as Torah. Rabbi Sacks suggested that whereas when we pray we speak to G-d when we study Torah G-d speaks to us. The idea of study of Torah is that we should achieve a closeness to G-d and as a result transcend our physical selves and take on a more G-dly.
Torah is compared to fire, for like fire it must leave an imprint.
A person possesses wisdom; Torah possesses the person. Torah is compared to fire, for like fire it must leave an imprint. Where the study of the Torah does not transform the student, whatever knowledge he obtains is not Torah but secular wisdom.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes in And from there you shall seek, that “the epistemological tension between objectivity and subjectivity that rules in the area of cognition does not reign in His heavens”. The commandment to study Torah is directly connected to the principle of imitatio Dei – imitation of the divine. By studying Torah, man becomes like Him and also cleaves to him. This is the foundation of the commandment of cleaving to G-d – le-dovkah bo (Deuteronomy 11:22). What this really means is the emotional, psychological and spiritual impact of cleaving to those who know him. Pure life, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, in the abstract, without taking on the form of the practical life, is not the aspiration of halakhic man or the man of G-d.
Judaism sees the benefit in studying secular disciplines, not as an end in itself, but with the sole purpose of seeing the majesty of G-d in the creation.
Rav Tzadok Hacohen, the 19th Century Hassidic great, qualifies this idea. He points out that if the ultimate goal is for us to come closer to a realisation of G-d, if carried out correctly then that could be achieved even through the study of secular wisdom or nature if the motive and goal of that study are to discover G-d within it. It was this last point that differentiated Jews from their Greek counterparts. Both valued wisdom and intellect. Jews could also see the benefit in studying secular disciplines, but not as an end in itself, but with the sole purpose of seeing the majesty of G-d in the creation and as a result will bring the individual closer to G-d. Indeed, it is well known that from Maimonides to the Vilna Gaon, many of our greatest of Sages were experts in secular wisdom.
We are familiar with the fact the Greeks on entering the Temple precincts defiled all the oil for the menorah except for one small pure flask that remained hidden. This said Rav Tzadok, symbolized the ideological battle over Wisdom that was being waged. The Greeks were intent on turning the Torah with all secular wisdom into something that had no inherent value or purpose and therefore they had defiled the oil and the flame of the Torah. It would remain in the realm of academia and intellectual rigor.
Rav Nachman of Breslov develops this idea further. He states that when the priests entered the Temple after the war had been won, they found every flask of oil representing the light of Torah was contaminated. This, he says, was due to the fact that those immersed in teaching and learning Torah at the time had become corrupted in their attitude to the Torah and intellect. The wisdom and knowledge had gone to their heads. Instead of them being filled with humility, the additional wisdom had caused them to become more egocentric and less humble. It was then it was discovered, one small earthenware flask of the oil intact. Rav Nachman suggested that the earthenware simple flask was emblematic of the most simple unknowledgeable Jews of their day. They had no wisdom and therefore they approached the rebuilding of the Jewish people after this war from a place of utter humility recognising they started with a blank sheet with no knowledge. Yet it was this knowing they didn’t know that filled them with humility. It was the humility and purity of character that reignited the menorah and led to a renaissance in learning.
The story is told of the great Dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva known as the Netziv, who was looking for a son in law he went to one of the great Yeshivot in Europe in search of an outstanding Torah scholar that would be fitting for his daughter and posed a very difficult Talmudic question as a test to determine which would be student would be a worthy suitor for his daughter. After hearing all the students give incorrect answers, he left rather disappointed. As his carriage is pulling away one of the students runs after the carriage screaming for them to stop. The Netziv orders the carriage to stop and dismounts excitedly to hear whether the student has the correct answer to his conundrum. The student said regrettably he doesn’t know the answer to the question, but he said I want to know what the answer is.
Rather than a pursuit for truth and meaningfulness, we take at face value the knowledge that is so readily accessible to us at the click of a button on the internet and on social media.
The great Netziv smiled and wished the student Mazel Tov he had passed the test. The student was baffled and started to strongly protest that he hadn’t given the correct answer. To which the Netziv responded, in life as a jew it is not so much about knowing the answer but having the desire and thirst to pursue the truth and search for the answer.
Returning to the Chanukah story, the miracle on the battlefield and the miracle with the oil were in fact two halves of the same coin. Both of them reflected the idea of our people rededicating themselves to our Torah and expunging the Hellenist Philosophy from Jewish life. In this way they could achieve devekut and reconnect with G-d.
This Chanukah ideal has particular resonance to us in our generation. We live in a society that is enveloped with darkness. One aspect of this darkness is the approach to wisdom and knowledge. Rather than a pursuit for truth and meaningfulness, we take at face value the knowledge that is so readily accessible to us at the click of a button on the internet and on social media. As we kindle our menorah this Chanukah it is our commitment to ourselves and our people to pursue wisdom and knowledge in a way that leads us closer to the meaning and the Almighty bringing greater light to this world.
Credits: This article was co-authored with Mr Daniel Sher.