The festival of Chanukah is very popular. Many Jews identify with it, and many because they probably misunderstand it. They either think of it as celebration of political independence, or as a type of nationalistic holiday. Really, Chanukah is about a clash of cultures – Judaism and the Torah versus the Hellenistic Greeks. I have nothing against the current Greeks, we are talking about the ancient Hellenists who, for the Star Trek fans, were the Borg of antiquity. The motto of the Borg alien race was, ‘We will assimilate you! Resistance is futile’. To a certain degree the Greeks were like that. They wanted Hellenism to rule the world, and indeed, they were quite successful. It was through the conquest of Alexander the Great that Greek culture, philosophy and thought came to almost the entire world. To the extent, that the philosopher Allan Bloom called the Western world, “children of the Greeks.” Many, many cultures folded before the Hellenists and many peoples gave up their cultural independence in the face of the onslaught of Hellenism. The Jews were different and stubborn, they revolted against Greek rule successfully, and we celebrate their victory against the Hellenists on Chanukah.
What is the point of contention between Judaism and Hellenism? What exactly is the point of disagreement? The answer to this question is not obvious, especially since the Talmud has some very complimentary things to say about the Greeks. The Talmud maintains that the Greek language is one of the only languages where it is appropriate to translate the Bible into because of its beauty. Greek words like Sanhedrin,and afikoman became part of Jewish discourse, and names like Alexander and Antigonos were accepted as Jewish names. We know that many of the Sages, Maimonides and others, used the tools of Greek philosophy, used the tools of Greek logic to explain the world, and to explain the Torah. So what is the argument?
The answer can be found in the commentary of Nachmanides, on Leviticus 15, verse 8. He states, “We are not like that Greek, (Aristotle) and his students. Who only admit to that which their eyes can see and their senses can sense and they only believe as true that which their intellects understand.” He calls this view “arrogant.” The Greek world view was that if my senses cannot detect this, it does not exist. If my mind cannot comprehend something, it does not exist. There is indeed tremendous arrogance in making ourselves into the definers of reality.
Judaism is predicated upon the belief that there is a reality beyond the physical world. There is a reality which we cannot sense with our physical senses but we know is there. And we also believe that the sum total of that which the intellect understands is only a small segment of the reality of the world. We admit to the reality that is beyond the mind. We admit to a reality that is beyond the grasp of the senses, and we live according to that reality. Maybe that is one reason we are called, Yehudim, in Hebrew, because one translation of that is “those who admit.” The Jewish people organized themselves around a Temple. We organized ourselves around a Torah and around the laws of the Torah which are the rules that teach us how to operate in the physical reality, always taking into account the spiritual reality, the reality of the soul, and the reality of G-d. The Greeks were very uncomfortable with the Jews, because they needed to quantify everything, to put things in a chart, and to write a summary. They needed to be able to grasp everything, and to totally understand it, and if they could not, then “it” doesn’t exist.
The Greeks found it necessary to suppress and oppress the “other worldly” Jews and celebrate by lighting Chanukah candles. We light a menorah and, interestingly, we don’t even use the light of the menorah. Why? Because that light is not meant to reveal anything physical, it’s meant to reveal a reality beyond the physical.