I would like to address an aspect of Chanukah which I think is a little misunderstood. Chanukah is very popular, and I think this popularity is due to many people having a misconception about it. They look at it as some type of 4th of July, some type of fight or struggle to Jewish independence, or a struggle for the Jewish people to have a freedom, and so on and so forth. The truth of the matter is that there is some element of truth in those things.
But I would say that the main concept behind Chanukah is really a clash of two very, very different and opposing world views: The Jewish world view and the Hellenistic or ancient Greek world view. It is somewhat interesting because the Greeks tried to really eradicate Jewish observance, but they did not try to destroy the Jews people (we have had times in history, unfortunately too many, where people have tried to destroy us physically). What the Greeks tried to do was destroy us spiritually. They banned the practice of circumcision. They banned the observance of the Sabbath. They did not allow us to use the Jewish calendar. They tried to invade the purity of the Jewish family through the droit du seigneur, there was all types of decrees which were designed to break down the sanctity of the Jewish people and to really assimilate us in a sense. And it is hard to understand what exactly was the opposition of the Greeks to the Jewish people.
In order to understand this, Nachmanides’ great Jewish Commentary of the 12th Century discusses the difference, the opposition, between the Jews and the Greeks. Before I get there, I want to point out that the way the Sages see it, they say that in the time when we had prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah etc., there was always opposition to the prophets – and there had to be opposition – because freewill requires that the world to be balanced between good and evil. If I can be successful only in good then it curtails my freewill, just as if I should be successful only with evil obviously it curtails my freewill. So as the verse says in Ecclesiastes one opposite the other did G-d make things. He created a world where there is a certain balance, so in the time that we had prophecy the main opposition to that was what we call idolatry, ovoda zera, idol worship, idolatry etc. And it was almost like there was a supernatural struggle between the prophets on the one hand who clearly had supernatural abilities and the pagan priests who perhaps also had some exceptional and maybe even supernatural abilities. And there was a clash between those two, the pagans and the prophets.
But around the time of Alexander the Great, Alexander of Massidon, a change took place. In the Jewish world we started to come to the end of the era of prophecy. In fact, the era of when prophecy was over coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the reign of Alexander of Massidon. And what took over from us in terms of prophecy was the study of the Torah – specifically the sages of the Oral Law. Instead of communicating with G-d in a prophetic supernatural way, the communication would not be via the application of human intellect to the study deep and multi-dimensional study of the Torah. What stood opposite, so to speak? If when we had prophets the supernatural opposition was idolatry; so when we now do not have prophets but instead have the intellectual prowess and greatness of the sages the Greek philosophy and the Greek world-outlook stood opposite. And the Greek world-outlook now stood opposed to the Oral Torah and the Rabbis of the Torah and their outlook on the world. What was what we call in Hebrew, the nikudat machalochot, the point of dispute, the point of argument? Nachmanides the 12th Century Kabbalist and sage says the following: He says that the Greeks only would admit as reality that which their senses could detect, and they only agreed that which is true is that which their minds could fully comprehend, but that which their senses could not detect, and their mind could fully comprehend they would simply maintain is not real and is not true. Nachmanides says there is a tremendous arrogance in saying “I am the determiner of what is real and what is true. My mind is the be-all-and-end-all of reality.” This Greek arrogance stands opposite the Jews, because the word for Jew in Hebrew is Yehudi, which means, “he who admits.” What do Jews admit to? We admit to the existence of reality beyond which that our senses can detect and a reality beyond that which our mind can comprehend. And we live and fulfil the Commandments of the Torah and the precepts of Judaism, is really how to live in this limited physical reality in accordance with the greater spiritual reality.
The Greeks respected the Jews in terms of their intellect, but nevertheless they could not comprehend or even tolerate the idea that the Jews were living in a reality in which they could not exist. A reality that the physics of Aristotle could not categorize; that the science could neither evaluate nor quantify. It is impossible to quantify the soul; spirituality does not show up in a MRI scan or a TeraBeam scan or anything like that. These things cannot be neatly put into categories of science and that is something that bothered the Greeks. When they saw that the Jews were living according to this other reality – which did not fit into their system; which could not be quantified; which could not be detected – that drove them crazy!
Yet the Jewish people live in that reality. We follow the Commandments of the Torah which is really living in this world but conforming to a reality beyond which you can see and detect in this world. This explains a little bit of an interesting idea about the Chanukah candles: One is prohibited from benefitting from the light of the Chanukah candles: You cannot use the light for reading or for finding your way across the room. You cannot use it for anything. In other words, it is not light that is meant to reveal the physical world. It is not light that is meant to be revealing that which the senses can detect. It is light that reveals another reality, a reality that is spiritual, a reality which is eternal and a reality that cannot be suppressed and stopped by all the powers of the physical world. That, I think, is the central lesson of Chanukah.