Chanukah: The Spiritual Battle

The underlying theme of the conflict between the Jews and the Greeks, is the clash between two diametrically opposed worldviews.  In the Jewish view of reality, everything in the physical world is a reflection of the spiritual.  A physical conflict is a superficial manifestation of a deeper spiritual conflict.  There are of course many points of contention between Jewish tradition and Greek philosophy, the spiritual essence of the Judeo-Greek conflict however, revolves around a single idea — the definition of reality. Nachmanides, one of the greatest Biblical commentators, encapsulates the difference as follows:

“[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Our belief is unlike] that Greek [Aristotle] who denied everything that he could not sense.  He and his students were arrogant enough to think that anything which they did not arrive at with their own reasoning was not true.[1]”

The essence of Jewish belief is that what the senses perceive is only the surface.  Beneath this plane of physical perception lies a vast spiritual reality.  For Jews, truth is not defined by the human being but by God.  Our system of ethics originates in the revelation at Mt. Sinai, not in a social contract or human convenience.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once commented that there is no such thing as Jewish theology — for theology is the opinion of humans about God, but Judaism is God’s opinions about humanity, “Not what man thinks of God is of primary importance, but what God thinks of man and wants him to do.”[2]  The Greeks believed that their perception defined reality, ethics and truth.  The most elegant, beautiful concept constitutes the truth.  The Greek ideal of beauty for example, was something that depended on very specific measurements in the facial structure of a person.  The more acute the angle formed by the nose and forehead, the more ugly the individual, the more obtuse the angle, the more beautiful.[3]  Western society, the successor of Greek culture, exhibits this attitude in its language as well.  The English word “face” has its origins in the Latin “facies” which is related to “facade,” “surface” and “superficial.”   In contrast, the Hebrew word for face is panim, which means “inside.”  The most beautiful face is one that reveals inner beauty and meaning, not one with idealized angles and texture.[4]

Maimonides points out another theme in the conflict.  He maintains that the greatest mistake of Greek philosophy was the belief that matter was eternal and not created.[5]  Since, in the Greek view, God was within, and not above nature, He could not, therefore, intervene to change nature. This view precluded the possibility of miracles, revelation and Divine Providence and denied any ultimate purpose in existence.  The events of Chanukah provided a dramatic refutation of this Greek worldview.

The Greek Melting Pot

The idea that any one people could be “chosen” or have a Divine revelation was completely contrary to Greek belief.  Their campaign against Judaism and the Jews did not focus on physical extermination, but rather attempted to eradicate the Jews as a special people.  One example of this effort was the Emperor Ptolemy’s translation of the Torah into Greek.  The Talmud [6] relates that Ptolemy gathered 72 Sages, placed them in 72 separate cubicles and commanded them to translate the Five Books of Moses into Greek.  Miraculously they all translated the Torah in exactly the same way, and they all made 13 changes from a literal translation in order to prevent the Greeks from misinterpreting the Torah.[7] Although this would appear to be a positive event, perhaps as a step toward disseminating the ideas of monotheism and morality, the Jewish Sages looked upon it as a disaster.[8]

The tragedy is that the Torah cannot ever be captured in translation.  No language can do justice to its depth, beauty, infinite layers and nuances other than Hebrew.[9]

More importantly, the Greeks would now present the Torah, the essence of the bond between the Jews and God, as public property to be accessed by anyone.  They would argue that the Jewish people no longer had any claim to a “special relationship” with God, since anyone could take Judaism 101 at Athens university and know Torah just as well.  In truth, in order to properly understand Torah, one must have the Oral Tradition,[10] which the Greeks did not.  The true covenant between God and the Jewish people was manifested in the intimate and personal relationship of the Oral tradition, even more than in the publicly available and accessible Written Torah.[11]


Chanukah is a celebration of the miracle of Jewish spiritual survival.  After millennia of attempts to assimilate us, whether through force or persuasion, we are still here.   But, it is not mere physical survival that we celebrate.  After all, the genes of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks have also physically survived.  The miracle of Jewish survival is that we have survived with our spiritual heritage intact.[12]  When we light the Chanukah candles today we are extensions of the Maccabees lighting the Menorah in the rededicated Second Temple and the Priests in the First Temple of King Solomon.  Ultimately, we are even continuing the lighting of the first Menorah in the Sinai Desert by Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses.[13]

The lights of the Chanukah candles are also a potent reminder that physical might and numbers do not necessarily prevail.  As the prophet Zechariah stated, “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, said the Lord of Hosts.”[14]  The miracle of Chanukah was the victory in which God delivered

…the powerful into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the violent into the hands of the those who are devoted to the Torah.[15]


[1] Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah, Leviticus 16:8 (end of paragraph)

[2] Cited by Dayan I. Grunfield, Introduction to Horeb, Soncino Press, London, 1962. p. xxxviii

[3] Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus, Norton Paperback, New York, 1992. Chapter 15 

[4] Quoted from Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner

[5] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 2:25

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Megilah 9a

[7] Mishnah, Tractate Sofrim 1:8

[8] Ibid. 1:7

[9] Ibid.

[10] See the Chapter on The Oral Tradition

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 60b; Responsa Beit Halevi, Drush 18

[12] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, II Edoth, Chapter 34, Par. 247

[13] Nachmanides, Commentary on Numbers 8:2

[14] Zechariah 4:6

[15] Liturgy, Prayer inserted into Silent Prayer on Chanukah, Artscroll Siddur, pp. 118-119[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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