Chanukah: Culture Clash

Chanukah starts in about a week and a half, and without doubt it is one of the most popular of our festivals amongst Jews in general, even if not observant. A lot of people identify with Chanuka, and there is a lot of misunderstanding of its significance. Chanuka marks a clash of cultures – Judaism and the Torah versus the Hellenistic Greeks. I have nothing against the current Greeks. We’re talking about the ancient Hellenists who, for the Star Trek fans, were like what the Borg of the ancient world. The motto of the Borg alien race was, ‘We will assimilate you! Resistance is futile’. Well, to a certain degree the Greeks were like that. They wanted Hellenism to rule the world, and indeed, they were successful. It was through the conquest of Alexander the Great, or Alexander of Macedon as he’s also known, that Greek culture, philosophy and thought came to almost the entire world. Allan Bloom called the western world, children of the Greeks. Many, many cultures folded, many peoples gave up in the face of the Greek onslaught, but the Jews didn’t and the Jews revolted against Seleucid rule. And we celebrate our victory against the Hellenists with Chanukah.

What was the point of contention between the Jews and the Hellenists? The Talmud has some quite positive things to say about Greek culture. It says that the Greek language is one of the only languages in which it is appropriate to translate the Bible, because of its beauty. We also know that many of our Sages, Maimonides and others, used the tools of Greek philosophy and 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, Rav Moshe ben Nachman, a 13th Century Spanish scholar. In his commentary on the Torah to Leviticus 15: 8, he writes: We are not like that Greek [Aristotle], and his students. They only admit to that which their eyes can see and their senses can sense and they only believe as true that which their intellect understands. He calls them arrogant.  The Hellenistic world view was that if my senses cannot detect something it does not exist. If my mind cannot comprehend something, it is not true.

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 it is there. And we also say that which the intellect understands is only a small amount of the reality of the world. Jews are called Yehudim meaning “those who admit.” The Jewish world view is based on acknowledging a reality that is beyond this world and beyond our mind. We admit to a reality that is beyond the grasp of the senses, and we live according to that reality. 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. But, taking into account the reality of the spiritual world, the reality of the soul, the reality of G-d, the reality of spiritual worlds, that is something which the Greeks couldn’t tolerate, because they need to quantify everything. They need to put it out into some chart, they need to summarize it. They need to be able to grasp it. They need to be able to totally understand it, and if they don’t totally understand it, it is not there.

When I was a child in Australia, it was common to remove tonsils as a treatment for throat infections. However, my doctor, G-d bless him, he didn’t take out my tonsils.  He said to me, “We believe now that since we don’t know the reason for tonsils, we assume therefore that they have no purpose.  But I find that ‘therefore” somewhat arrogant. So I’m not going to remove your tonsils.” The idea that the ‘therefore’ is arrogant, is something which I completely endorse. I can’t see the soul. I can’t quantify love. I cannot measure altruism with a multi-meter but I know all those things exist.

So this was the clash of cultures. Jews who claimed that they are attached to a reality beyond the mind’s comprehension and beyond which the senses can sense, and there were the Greeks who said there is no reality beyond that which my mind can understand and my senses can detect. We celebrate by lighting Chanukah candles, a mini-Menorah, whose light we specifically do not use. We can’t read by it, we cannot sit there and use the light to look at anything. Why? Because that light is not supposed to reveal anything physical, it’s meant to reveal a reality beyond the physical.

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