Contrary to how Chanukah is taught in school, Chanukah does not represent freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and the power of the few over the many. The real Chanukah story involved two groups of Jews fighting over the soul of the Jewish People. There were the traditionalists, holding on for their dear life to the ways of their parents, arguing that the Jewish People must never change their ways, and the Hellenists, who sought to merge the wisdom of Aristotle to that of Moses, and wanted to part ways with the laws that seemed outdated. Antiochus and his Greek army were supporting actors at best in this epic drama.
What made this battle so fierce was not the great divide between Athens and Jerusalem, but their many similarities. Yes, there were barbaric fights taking place in the coliseums, the Greek focus on aesthetics, and a certain amount of hedonism. But at the same time, there was no other culture that shared so much with the Torah. In the Hellenized states, the great Greek thinkers were pondering the meaning of existence and promoting an ethical life. It was the Greeks who put the word civil into civilization; they were creating an international community, not out of oppression and terror, but out of tolerance and the mixing of old and new. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefet” (Bereishis, 9:27) – There is a reason the Torah describes Greece as beautiful, that the Talmud (Megillah, 8b) allows for a Torah scroll to be written in Greek, and that the Zohar (Shemos, 237a) proclaims that “Yavan/ Greece is close to the path of true faith.”
Despite the great joy that surrounds this holiday – with eight days of fried food and family fun it’s hard to complain – in truth, I struggle mightily with enjoying this holiday. The Greeks we defeated were the forefathers of Western civilization and all that it has to offer; public education, equality, civil responsibility, the arts; all the many positive features of our society can be traced back to those ancient Greeks. Yes, there are elements of this Greek beauty that conflict with my religious value system, but there is also so much I adore. What exactly am I celebrating? More importantly, is the war even over? As far as I’m concerned this ancient battle is alive and well, raging inside of me. And that’s because –
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that has no tolerance for any divisions made on racial or religious lines. And yet, there is a part of me that is Jewish – a part of me that believes that as Jews, we are a special people with a special role to play in this world.
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes that every country should be totally democratic and not have any religious flavor. And yet, there is a part of me that is Jewish – a part of me that believes that God gave the Jewish People the land of Israel and I take great pride in a state that is distinctly Jewish.
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes that quality of life is paramount, and a person should have full autonomy over his/her own body. And there is a part of me that is Jewish, that believes that our bodies are a gift from God, not ours, and that every moment of life, as painfully challenging as it may be, is priceless.
There is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that believes that there should be absolute equality for both men and women. And there is a part of me that is Jewish, that sees in the Torah a dual role played by women; that of an Ishah, Eve’s primary name; a name that connotes equality with man, and Eve’s secondary name, Chavah, a name that represents motherhood (Akeidas Yitzchak, Parshas Vayeitzei). And perhaps, the differentiated obligations of the Torah reflect the emphasis that Judaism places on family.
And lastly, there is a part of me that is Greek – a part of me that if I were to be totally honest, at times is troubled with miracles I did not witness, in authorship I cannot verify, and in a future that seems so distant and foreign. And yes, in the darkest of times, even struggles with the existence of a Being I have not heard from. And at the very same time, there is a part of me that is so powerfully Jewish – a part of me that is over-awed by the majesty of the world, the profundity of the Torah, the arc of history, and even if it cannot be articulated, just knows that there must be an Author. A part of me that is awakened during prayer and feels a presence that shatters those doubts into millions and millions of pieces.
No, this battle is not over. All night long we wrestle. It’s not easy celebrating Chanukah when you’re both Jewish and Greek.
Nonetheless, I do celebrate Chanukah. Into this dark confusion, I light a candle.
To me, that small flame represents the march of history. It reminds me that this is not the first time that Jewish values were viewed as archaic or backward. In Abraham’s times, child sacrifice was fashionable. Aristotle, the most enlightened Greek of all, endorsed pederasty, intimate relationships between adult men and young boys, because it was a wonderful form of population control. It wasn’t always easy or fashionable to be Jewish and to live by its laws, but that ner tamid, that ever-lasting flame represents a history which has shown us time and time again that today’s morality is tomorrow’s backwardness.
To me, that small flame reminds me how Jewish values, such as the emphasis on the family, are needed today more than ever; that although there has been incredible progression in regards to equality in the workforce, progression which I embrace, there has also been a steady decline in family life that has gone along with it. In the 60’s, 71% of Americans were married. Today, the number has dropped by over 20%. In the 60’s the average household in America had 3.5 children, today it has dropped by almost half. That fire of my candle warms my heart, calling my attention to the beauty and necessity of family life.
To me, that small flame reminds me of another small flame, one I do not see but believe in; my soul, a Godly gift that is imbued with holiness and thirsts for meaning. She is a powerful rebuke and rebuttal to the aimlessness and hedonism that is rampant in society. As believers in a soul, we do not need to create meaning; our neshama represents a purpose and calling that is intrinsic to our existence.
“A little bit of light,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, “can banish a lot of darkness.”
“Vayizrach lo hashemesh” (Bereishis, 32:32), the sun will one day rise, this battle will be over. However, the struggle will not end with one side defeating the other. “Yaft Elokim l’Yefet, v’yishkon b’oholei Shem – God will give beauty to Yefet (the ancestor of the Greeks), and he will reside in the tents of Shem (the ancestor of the Jewish People).” The struggle will end when we properly integrate the beauty of Greece into the tents of Torah.
This is the great paradox of the Chanukah candle. On the one hand, it can be used to strengthen our resolve, our faith, and our confidence in the Torah; the light overpowers the darkness. And all the same, our candle can guide us through the darkness, in the delicate art of nikkur hagid (removing the sciatic nerve), giving us strength to rescue the sparks, and the wisdom to properly merge the world of Yefet with that of Sheim.