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, the Hebrew name for the Greeks, means quicksand (Tehillim 69:3)- 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, “hichshichah eineihem” (Bereishis Rabbah 2:4). Darkness represents a lack of clarity, the inability to perceive true form. Physical darkness prevents physical clarity, spiritual darkness prevents spiritual clarity. 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.
However, if we take a deeper look into Jewish literature, we find a strikingly different picture of the Greek nation and their culture. In Parshas Noach, Noach blesses his two sons, Shem and Yefes, with a seemingly peculiar bracha: “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, v’yishkon b’ohalei Shem, Hashem will grant beauty to Yefes, and he (Yefes) will dwell within the tents of Shem.” Yefes is the precursor to the Greeks, and Shem to the Jews. This seemingly paints 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 due to the beauty of the 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, “Istakel bi’oraisa, u’bara alma, Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world” (Bereishis Rabbah 1:1). 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. Similarly, each and every one of us was once a zygote, half and male and half a female genetic code. From that single cell a fully developed and expressed human being ultimately manifested. The same is true regarding the physical world, it stems from a spiritual root, a transcendent dimension.
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. Through your words, actions, facial expressions and body language, other people experience what’s going on inside of your body, inside of your head, inside of you.
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 (Ramban Al HaTorah, Vayikra 16:8), the Greeks believed only that which the human intellect could grasp. Anything that requires spiritual sensitivity, that transcends rational proof alone, was dismissed as false. Even the Greeks 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 worldly wisdom, 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 reasoning 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 the physical world is true, it stems from a higher truth, the Torah. Torah is the absolute foundation and root; all physical wisdom is its expression.
The Ideal Relationship
The ideal is for the physical wisdom of the Greeks and Yefes to reside within the tent of Shem, for science and the wisdom of the world 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. Every day, we get to choose whether we’ll become further entrenched in secular culture, or if we’ll build our connection to the transcendent, carrying the message of Chanukah deep within our hearts.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah.