Chanuka is Not the Fourth of July


Many people think that Chanukah is type of a festival of political independence, freedom fighters, patriots, something like a July 4th, or whatever, Jews fighting for political independence against the Greek Empire, or something to that effect.

In truth, Chanukah is really a clash of cultures. It was the Hellenistic world view versus the Jewish world view. And these two cultures were diametrically opposed. The Greeks were bothered by the very existence of Jews who were observing Judaism and they attempted to prevent that from happening. The Talmud and the Midrash, Jewish sources tell us that the Greeks banned circumcision, they banned the observance of the Sabbath,  and they banned the use of the Jewish calendar. They tried to insinuate themselves into Jewish marriages through what is known as droit du seigneur, the night with the local master for a woman who was married, and so on and so forth. What was the clash in cultures and is it still relevant to us? I mean, the Greeks have not really been producing philosophers for the past couple of thousand years, Telly Savalas notwithstanding.

So what exactly is the problem? What is the clash? So I think the answer can be found in the writings of Nachmanides. Nachmanides was a very famous commentator from the 12th Century. Nachmanides writes, and the exact source of this for those who want to look it up is his commentary on Leviticus 15, verse 8. Nachmanides writes that the difference of opinion and of outlook between the Greeks and the Jews was that the Greeks only admitted as true, only admitted as being real that which the senses could perceive. And they only believed something to be true if their mind could completely comprehend it. So, for the Greeks the measure of something being real, the measure of something being true, was the measure of my understanding and my senses and of my mind. There was in the words of Nachmanides a tremendous arrogance in that type of world view. There is an arrogance in which they were the judges of reality and of truth and anything that they could not sense was not true. So if you could not quantify for example, love, you could not quantify altruism, you could not measure the soul it does not show up in MRIs or x-rays, or tetra beams, or anything like that. So therefore it does not exist. There is an arrogance to a description of reality that is limited to my pathetic sensory abilities and to my intellect.

The Jewish perspective is very different. The Jewish perspective is that the reality that we sense with our physical senses is only a small proportion of the total reality. The world that we understand with our limited mind is only a small section of the reality as a whole. What we see of reality is only the tip of the Goldberg, I am sorry iceberg, of reality and the vast bulk of it lies really beneath the surface and is not understood or necessarily seen by us.

And that is what Judaism is predicated upon, it is predicated upon this idea. And that is where the clash of cultures came, because the Jewish people lived then and indeed continue to live now based on a reality which is spiritual. The rules of our Torah, the rules of our life, are rules which are how to live in this world according to the reality of the spiritual world. What to do in this world to have an impact in the spiritual worlds and how the spiritual worlds have an impact on us. We live with the reality of G-d as real to us as every other aspect of reality, if not more real. And that bothered the Greeks because here was an entire people who were ignoring the reality that they had measured so well, that they had encapsulated in their writings, that they had organised in their physics and so on and so forth. And there was a tremendous, tremendous feeling of hatred for Jews and Judaism who were living according to this different reality.

I think this opposition still exists. I think there are people out there who are bothered by the existence of Judaism and indeed bothered by the existence of religion in general. Bothered by the fact that there are people who they look at as intellectual, there are people who are smart, there are people who are successful and those people are living according to a reality that they cannot see. And they are frustrated and upset, and in the case of the Greeks it turned into persecution.

The celebration of Chanukah and of the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks is something that we celebrate in a spiritual way. We say special prayers, we sing special songs and we light the Menorah. We light the Chanukah Menorah. Interestingly enough, the light of the Chanukah Menorah is totally non-utilitarian. In fact, you are not allowed to use it for anything. You want to study by the light of the Menorah you cannot do it. You would like to read a book by the light of the Menorah you cannot do it. Want to count your chocolate Chanukah coins by the light of the Menorah you cannot do it. That light is not there to reveal anything physical. It is not there for the purpose of the senses it is there to reveal something spiritual. When the light of the candles of the Menorah burn brightly in Jewish windows throughout the world they reveal that behind these windows, in that house, there are people who have been living according to a reality that is not visible, a reality that is not necessarily comprehensible but a reality that is there nonetheless.

I think that is one of the central messages of Chanukah and have a great happy Chanukah for everyone. And let us hope the light of the Chanukah candles is able to reveal to us the inner spiritual world of Chanukah.

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