April 18, 2024
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April 18, 2024
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The Chanukah Story That Could Have Been

Chanukah is when we tap into the spiritual debate between the Jews and the Greeks, as the Greeks specifically attempted to destroy our spiritual way of life. They aimed to cut off our connection with Hashem and replace it with the worship of the natural, physical world. Yavan means quicksand in Hebrew: The Greeks sought to “drown” us in their secular culture, replacing spirituality with atheism and hedonism. The midrash says that the Greeks attempted to darken our eyes, “hichshichu et eineichem” (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4). Darkness represents a lack of clarity, the inability to perceive true form. This was the Greek attack on the Jewish people: a distortion of truth, a darkening of knowledge and perception. For this reason, the Jewish people went to war against the mighty Greek army, and to this day we carry on that fight against Greek culture, a culture that we view as damaging and antithetical to Judaism.

Greek Culture

However, if we take a deeper look into Jewish literature, we find a strikingly different picture of the Greek nation and their culture. In Parshat Noach, Noach blesses his two sons, Shem and Yefet, with a seemingly peculiar bracha: “Yaft Elokim l’Yefet, v’yishkon b’ohalei Shem” (Bereishit 9:27): Hashem will grant beauty to Yefet, and he will dwell within the tents of Shem. Yefet is the precursor to the Greeks, and Shem to the Jews. This seems to paint the Greeks in a positive light, as a beautiful nation fitting to dwell within the framework and boundaries of Judaism. In a similar vein, the Gemara (Megillah 9b) states that despite the general prohibition of translating the Torah into different languages, it is permissible to translate the Torah into Greek because it is a beautiful language. According to both of these sources, it seems as though Greek culture does not contradict Judaism, but is meant in some way to complement it, harmonizing with Jewish ideology. How can we understand this contradiction? In order to explain it, we must first develop a deep spiritual principle.

The Spiritual-Physical Relationship

How do we understand and perceive Hashem? Is Hashem within time and space, limited to this world alone, as Pantheists believe? Or is Hashem completely transcendent, beyond time, space and this physical world, as many of the ancient philosophers believed?

The Jewish approach, as explained by the Rambam, Maharal, Ramchal and others, is a beautifully nuanced blend of these two approaches. Hashem is transcendent, completely beyond our physical world of time and space, and yet He is also immanent, within our physical world. This principle applies to all spirituality; we believe that the spiritual and transcendent is deeply connected to the limited and physical world. In other words, our physical world is a projection and emanation of a deeper, spiritual reality. This is the meaning behind the famous midrash, “Istaklah b’oraita, u’bara alma” (Bereishit Rabbah 1:1), Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world. This means that the physical world is an emanation and expression of the Torah, the spiritual root of existence. To give an analogy, imagine a projector: the image you see on the screen is emanating from the projector. The projector and film are the source, the image on the screen is the expression.

Thus, we are able to understand and experience the spiritual through the physical, as the two are intrinsically connected. If you’re wondering how to understand this concept, consider the way other human beings experience, relate to and understand you. All they have ever seen is your physical body. They’ve never seen your thoughts, your consciousness or your emotions. The only way they can understand you is by relating to how you express yourself and your internal world through your physical body: your words, actions, facial expressions and body language.

The same is true regarding our experience of Hashem and the spiritual. We can’t see spirituality, only physicality. We must therefore use the physical to connect back to the spiritual root.

The Battle of Chanukah

The Greeks sought to uproot this Jewish perspective, to detach the physical world from its higher root. They claimed that human beings have no connection to anything higher than the physical world itself, and that it’s therefore impossible to connect to Hashem. As the Ramban explains (Vayikra 16:8), the Greeks believed only that which the human intellect could grasp. Anything that requires spiritual sensitivity, that goes beyond rational proofs alone, was dismissed as false. Even the Greek gods were glorified humans—as anything that transcended the physical, human world was dismissed. In essence, the Greeks served themselves.

The Jewish Perspective

The Jewish approach is much more nuanced. We embrace human intellect and reason, but are aware of a realm that transcends it. We recognize the wisdom of science, medicine, psychology, mathematics and other forms of madda, but also recognize
a higher form of wisdom, the Torah. As the Vilna Gaon explains, where logic and human intellect ends, Jewish wisdom begins. The logic behind this principle is based on the aforementioned idea: the physical world is an expression of the spiritual world. Just as the physical world stems from a higher spiritual realm, physical wisdom is an expression of a higher form of wisdom, the Torah. While the wisdom of madda is true, it stems from a higher truth, the Torah. Torah U’madda means that Torah is the absolute foundation and root, and madda is its physical expression.

The Ideal Relationship

The ideal is for the physical wisdom of the Greeks and Yefet to be within the tent of Shem. For science and madda to be in harmony with Torah. The problem occurred only once the Greeks denied the existence of anything beyond their independent intellectual wisdom. This was the battle of Chanukah. The Greeks tried to destroy the Torah, which contradicted their ideology, and the Jews were forced to fight for their beliefs, to defend their spiritual connection with Hashem and the transcendent wisdom of Torah.

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