Rabbi David Walk
Everybody loves Chanukah. It's actually quite cool to go to a mall or major department store and see Happy Chanukah right up there next to 'Merry Something or Other'. Even those venues which exclude mentioning the specific celebrations and just say 'Happy Holidays' or 'Season's Greetings', still make us feel included and welcomed. Plus, there's the added bonus of upsetting the folks at Fox, who claim that there is a war against their holiday. We Jews are so integral to the festivities that traditionally the holiday season began when Santa alighted from his sleigh at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. You know Macy's, even though it was founded by Rowland Hussey Macy in Haverhill, MA about 1843, was owned by Nathan Strauss (of Rechov Strauss fame in downtown Jerusalem), when that tradition began in 1924. So, here we are at the center of all these seasonal activities. Doesn't it make you feel warm and fuzzy all over? Um, maybe. Wasn't Chanukah about beating back the forces of assimilation and integration into the dominant culture? Shouldn't we feel uneasy about giving gifts on Chanukah because our neighbors are giving gifts around this time of year? And isn't it ironic that our version of the Greek Olympic games is called a Maccabiah? What would the Maccabees of old think? Has Chanukah lost its way?
I don't think so. There was always a certain ambivalence within Judaism towards the rest of the world and Greek culture (Whenever, I write 'Greek culture', I can't stop thinking about yoghurt) or Hellenism, in particular. Our Sages, in pointing out that the Greeks descended from Noach's son, Yafet, claimed that Greek culture is yafeh or beautiful. And we have many passages in the book of Isaiah which describe the Jewish responsibility to enlighten the world to the ways of ethical monotheism. We proclaim that the universal moral values of mankind are rooted in a transcendental world of sanctity and spirituality. Ethics and morality don't come from some natural tendency or instinct. The exalted feeling that a person experiences when engaging human values, actually does reflect something exalted, an image of God created by our Deity. And that's, perhaps, the beginning of the resolution to our quandary. We and the prevalent culture may arrive at the same conclusion, but we reach that decision through very different routes.
To a great extent, Greek philosophy was based on the famous dictum of Protagoras (5th century BCE) that 'man is the measure of all things.' We Jews seem to agree, but only up to a certain point. We do see the instructions given to the first human was to 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth (Genesis 1:28).' However, even though we are supposed to be masters of this realm, we do this with a clear understanding that God expects us to 'revere the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).' We are also enjoined in many sources 'to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing to Your name, O Most High. To declare in the morning Your kindness and Your faith at night (Psalms 92:2-3).' In other words we reject the anthropocentric view of the universe. Humanity has a tremendous role in this world, but God is the measure of all things.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB"M pointed out another major difference between our respective world views. He averred that, 'The Greeks believed that existence in its totality is comprehensible and conquerable. The universe contains no mystery, reflects no greater power. Man can master all creation…the Greek conception of mastery meant domination through conceptualization and categorization, fitting the universe into the confines of cognition. The Greeks asserted that the task of mastering the world was achievable…Everything in the universe has its exact place, and thus Man may decipher and master the laws of nature.' We disagree (and I believe so does modern science). Judaism proclaims, 'My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts, says the Lord. And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine (Isaiah 55:8).' For us the universe presents as many mysteries as answers; to the Greeks it is the 'cosmos', which means 'order'. To them everything is in proportion and harmony which describes a profound order to Creation.
Now we can understand the two miracles of Chanukah. The miracle of the war, the few and weak defeated the many and strong, proclaims that humanity is neither the center nor the controllers of our world. God, not humans or earthly power, decides the outcome of momentous affairs. And the miracle of the oil, reminds us that we don't have a clear understanding of our universe. Things happen which we can't explain. There are results beyond our ken. We muddle through this existence in awe of God's power and with humility about our own. We need both episodes to combat both contentions of Greek civilization. The Greeks aren't necessarily evil, but their hubris clashes with our self-effacement before the glory of God.
Rabbi Lichtenstein concluded, 'Judaism demands from those who inhabit this world that the center of all reality be the Creator, we are here to serve Him. All is dependent upon Him, secondary to Him, and there would be no existence without Him. All of the power we exert on the world is for His sake, and it is from Hashem alone that we draw our life and our strength.'
So, we can share the stage during this festive season, if we continually acknowledge our debt to and our relationship with our God. Our flickering flames proclaim an eternal truth and an inspiring reality. It's like Zecharyah (4:6) said: Not by might and not by power, but with the spirit of God! Happy Chanukah!