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Parshas Mikeitz (Chanukah) 5774

Politically Incorrect Chanukah

Ask someone to describe the mitzvos and customs which are related especially to the holiday of Chanukah, and he will likely list the lighting of the menorah, the giving of Chanukah gelt and other presents to the children, maybe even playing dreidel and eating latkes. Ask him to explain the meaning of the Chanukah celebration, and you will probably hear something like "Chanukah is a time when we celebrate the victory of light over darkness, of good over evil".

You see, in today's day and age when religious pluralism and political correctness reign supreme, there is a trend among our people to "universalize" our Jewish holidays and to "downplay" those aspects and rituals of the holidays whose practice would set us apart from those who are living around us. Passover becomes the universal "holiday of freedom" from oppression and slavery - commemorating, of course, the Jews' enslavement in Egypt, but also celebrating the civil rights movement and the end of apartheid in South Africa, women's liberation, the fall of Communism, free the whales ... you get the picture.

And the same has become of all of the other Jewish holidays celebrated throughout the year .... and especially Chanukah. Witness the following pronouncement made after 9/11 by a prominent Jewish organization:

At CLAL - the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City, we gathered an interdenominational team of rabbis and scholars to create the following ways in which we can dedicate each night of Chanukah to an act of heroism. We began with the simple premise that Chanukah lights remind us of those who sowed light in dark times (italics mine). This year, as we reflect on countless acts of courage, determination, and perseverance, we dedicate each night to a set of heroes:

First Night: Fire fighters, police officers and everyday citizens who gave their lives to save others.
Second Night: Doctors, counselors, volunteers with the Red Cross and others who were called on to heal, comfort, and support those individuals and families who have suffered unbearable loss.
Third Night: Government and community leaders who transcended ideological differences to build national strength and unity.
Fourth Night: Parents and teachers who helped children to cope with new fears with calm and empathy.
Fifth Night: Rabbis, priests, ministers, imams and other religious leaders who used their traditions to bring people together, to affirm our common humanity, and to nurture life.
Sixth Night: Men and women who have been called up to national service, who will not be with their families for the holidays this year so that they may protect us all.
Seventh Night: Allies around the world, who have been outspoken in their condemnation of terror.
Eighth Night: All of us who, through our daily actions, have insisted that we will vigilantly move on.

Now don't get me wrong ... I think that it is very commendable to dedicate special moments in time to the heroes of the world who sow light in dark times. But, at the risk of sounding totally not PC, I must say that all this has nothing at all to do with the Jewish holiday of Chanukah! In fact, this "universalizing" of our Jewish holidays and the religion as a whole, to make it "fit in" with our modern, pluralistic, everyone-and-every-religion-is-the-same, way of thinking, is the very idea that the Maccabees were fighting against, and whose victory over the Hellenist reformers the holiday of Chanukah comes to celebrate! Just read a little bit of the history of the events that led up to the Chanukah miracle and to its subsequent establishment as a Jewish holiday, and you'll see what I mean!


Paul Johnson writes in his book A History of the Jews (see pages 99-104):

The impact of Hellenization [Greek culture and philosophy] on educated Jews was in many ways similar to the impact of the enlightenment on the eighteenth-century ghetto. It woke the Temple-state from its enchanted sleep. It was a destabilizing force spiritually, and, above all, it was a secularizing, materialistic force. However, any possibility of Greeks and Jews living together in reasonable comfort was destroyed by the rise of a Jewish reform party who wanted to force the pace of Hellenization. This reform movement was strongest among the ruling class of Judah, already half-Hellenized themselves, who wanted to drag the little temple-state into the modern age. Their motives were primarily secular and economic.

But among the reformers there were also religious intellectuals whose aims were more elevated ... They wanted to improve Judaism, to push it further along the logical road it appeared to be travelling. Universalism is implicit in monotheism ... In universal monotheism, the Jews had a new and tremendous idea to give to the world. Now the Greeks also had a big, general idea on offer: universalist culture. Alexander had created his empire as an ideal: he wanted to fuse the races and he 'ordered all men to regard the world as their country ... good men as their kin, bad men as foreigners' ... Could not the Greek notion of the unified oikumene, world civilization, be married to the Jewish notion of the universal G-d?

That was the aim of the reformist intellectuals. They reread the historical scriptures and tried to deprovincialize them. Were not Abraham and Moses, these 'strangers and sojourners', really great citizens of the world? They embarked on the first Biblical criticism: the Law, as now written, was not very old and certainly did not go back to Moses. They argued that the original laws were far more universalistic. So the reform movement broadened into an attack on the Law, as it was bound to do. The reformers did not want to abolish the Law completely but to purge it of those elements which forbade participation in Greek culture and reduce it to its ethical core, so universalizing it.

In 175 BC the Jewish reform movement found an enthusiastic but dangerous ally in the new Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes. He was anxious to speed up the Hellenization of his dominions as a matter of general policy but also because he thought it would raise tax-revenues. He backed the reformers entirely and replaced the orthodox high-priest Onias III by Jason, whose name, a Hellenization of Joshua, proclaimed his party. Jason began the transformation of Jerusalem into a polis, renamed Antiochia, by constructing a gymnasium at the foot of the Temple Mount.

In 167 BC the conflict came to a head with the publication of a decree which in effect abolished the Mosaic law as it stood, replacing it with secular law, and downgrading the Temple into an ecumenical place of worship. This meant introducing the statue of an interdenominational god whose Greek name, Olympian Zeus, the rigorist Jews scrambled into "The Abomination of Desolation'. The evidence suggests that the initiative came from the extreme Jewish reformers, led by Menelaus, who thought that such a drastic move was the only way to end, once and for all, the obscurantism and absurdity of the Law and Temple worship.

But both the Greeks and Menelaus himself overestimated his support. His activities in the Temple provoked an uproar. Instead, Menelaus sought to impose reform from above, by state power. To make the decree effective, it was not enough to halt the old Temple sacrifices ... the pious Jews had also to be forced to make symbolic sacrifices in the new way, on altars they regarded as pagan.

In the town of Modiin in the Judean foothills 6 miles east of Lydda, a Jewish reformer, who was superintending the new official ceremony, was slaughtered by Matthias Hasmon, head of an old priestly family from the Temple 'Watch of Jehoiarib'. The old man's five sons, led by Judas the Maccabee, or 'Hammer', then launched a guerrilla campaign against Seleucid garrisons and their Jewish supporters. In two years, 166-164 BC, they drove all the Greeks out of the area around Jerusalem. In the city itself they penned reformers and Seleucids alike in the Acra, and purged the Temple of its sacrileges, rededicating it to G-d at a solemn service in December 164 BC, an event the Jews still celebrate at the Feast of Hannukah.

Would you believe that? The historical facts are that the Maccabees' Chanukah celebration came as a result of their victory in their fight to the death against those Jewish reformers who, with the support of the Greek Hellenists, had begun to introduce Greek culture into mainstream Judaism in order to universalize the religion to the point where the uniqueness of its "G-d-centeredness" and of the special relationship between G-d and the Jews as spelled out in His Torah, would be replaced with a sort of "Greek superculture" in which Man and Science would reign supreme.

Chanukah as a holiday celebrating the victory of rigorist, pious Jews against their coreligionist Hellenist-influenced reformers? Now that's a whole lot more specific than "the victory of light over darkness, of good over evil", isn't it?! See, I told you this wasn't going to be politically correct!

Okay, so now we know more about what was really going on way back when ...... but what does all this have to do with all the stuff we do presently to celebrate the holiday of Chanukah - the lighting of the menorah, the eating of oily latkes, etc.? We can't all be missing the boat!

The truth is that Chanukah is not about latkes or dreidels or presents under the menorah, or even about lighting the candles. To be sure, these are aspects of this unique Jewish holiday. But if we really want to capture the essence of this Jewish holiday - or any other Jewish holiday, for that matter - we have only to look at the special insertions in the prayers which the great Jewish sages of old instituted for us to recite on these occasions.

The special prayer that is said on all eight days of Chanukah during the Shemoneh Esrei, or Silent Prayer, is called Al Hanissim, and it recounts in brief the events which led up to the revolt of the Hasmoneans against their enemies, and how G-d took up their grievance and delivered the wicked Greeks into their hands.

The Al Hanissim prayer concludes: “Thereafter, Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified the site of Your Holiness and kindled lights in the Courtyards of Your Sanctuary; and they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great name.”

Isn't it interesting how the Al Hanissim prayer which is recited especially on Chanukah mentions none of Chanukah's popular associations, not even the mitzvah of lighting the menorah! All it tells us is that in order to celebrate the great and miraculous Chanukah victory, the Rabbis established eight days on which we express hoda'ah (thanks) to G-d's great name!

What is so special about hoda'ah and thanksgiving that it seems to be the central theme of the Chanukah celebration - even more than the lighting of the menorah - and how does this theme tie in with the rest of what we now know to have happened in the Chanukah story - the struggle and subsequent victory of the traditionalist, G-d-fearing Maccabees over the Greek Hellenists and their Jewish allies?


It has been said that hoda'ah, or thanksgiving, is the essence of the Jew. Even the title "Jew" stems from the name, Yehudah, Judah, who was so called because his mother Leah expressed her profound hoda'ah, thanksgiving, to G-d for his birth. A Jew never takes anything that he has for granted. Rather, he sees everything as a gift from G-d. And from the moment he wakes up in the morning, when he recites Modeh ani lefanecha ("I gratefully thank You, O living and eternal King for You have returned my soul within me ...."), to when he stands in prayer before G-d acknowledging His lovingkindness and beneficence, as well as throughout the day, when he makes blessings on everything that he eats, a Jew is constantly thanking G-d.

Yet as much as hoda'ah might be the essence of the Jew, the essence of hoda'ah itself is quite difficult to grasp. Though hoda'ah is often translated as "thanksgiving", there are sources in the Talmud which seem to contradict this understanding of its meaning. The Talmud in Megillah 18a, in its lengthy explanation of the order of the eighteen blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei, states that the blessing of thanksgiving (hoda'ah) logically follows the blessing of the Temple service (avodah) because ‘avodah v'hoda'ah chada milsa hee’, service and thanks are identical. This implies that it is unacceptable to thank G-d for His graciousness without accepting the obligation to serve Him.

Now if we are to understand hoda'ah merely to mean "giving thanks", then why does the Talmud write that it is synonymous with service to G-d. If anything, the opposite should be true. When someone buys me a present, and I send him a Thank You card, I have "paid back" my obligation to him with my note of thanks, and now we are even! So why is it that when we give hoda'ah and thanks to G-d in the daily prayers, we are simultaneously accepting upon ourselves a further obligation to serve Him? Obviously, there's more to hoda'ah than we think.

It is interesting to note that in Talmudic terminology, the word hoda'ah is also used in a different sense. When two people are arguing with each other over a loan, and one of the disputants finally admits that he owes the money, he is said to have been modeh (a word which is the verb form of hoda'ah) to his friend.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner explains that it is no coincidence that the same word, hoda'ah, is used to denote both thanksgiving and admitting or acknowledging. And the underlying reason for this is because when we thank someone, we are, in essence, admitting and acknowledging that we could not get along without his help. [I looked in the dictionary to find the etymology of the word thanks, and I discovered that it came from an Old English word meaning to think. Thanking somebody entails more than just writing a card or sending a gift. It involves thinking about what this person did for me and admitting that I couldn't do it alone.]

So that true hoda'ah, as understood from the traditional sources, is not just an act of giving thanks, but additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it is a thought process in which one recognizes and acknowledges his benefactor's kindness and how he could not have accomplished his goals without him. And this is especially true when it comes to expressing hoda'ah and thanks to G-d.

You see, when it comes to our relationship with our Benefactor in Heaven, there is precious little we can do to "pay Him back". What are we going to do - send Him flowers? Skywrite the words "Thank You" across the heavens? Have a tree planted in His name in Israel?

The Midrash on the verse in Psalms, "Give thanks to G-d for His kindness is forever", comments: There is only one way for the Jewish people to pay G-d back - and that is with "hoda'ah". The best we can do to pay G-d back for all He does for us is to give Him hoda'ah - meaning that we recognize and admit that we simply can't get along in life without G-d's being there for us. And when we do proper hoda'ah, we automatically feel a sense of obligation of avodah and service towards G-d. For how can one acknowledge that his very existence, both personal and national, stems from G-d's mercy, without simultaneously accepting an obligation to abide by His will?


Which brings us back to the Chanukah holiday and the struggle between the Maccabees and the Hellenists. You have to wonder why the Jewish traditionalists, led by the Maccabees, felt the need to resist and take up arms against the Greek Hellenists. After all, wasn't Greece all about wisdom, philosophy and enlightenment? And we know that the Jewish people were a people who always revered education, literacy and deep thinking. Did not the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides state, "In all matters sub-metaphysical Aristotle is correct," and, "Aristotle almost reached the rank of navi (prophet)"?

We even have a Biblical tradition dating back to the times of Noach, in which he blessed his son Yefes (from whom the Greeks descended) that "his cultural beauty and wisdom should dwell in the tent of Shem (i.e. the nation of Israel)" (Genesis 9:27), which seems to indicate that there is a definite place for Greek philosophy and beauty within Judaism.

In this regard, the cultured and intellectually sophisticated Hellenists should have been our soul mates, another enlightened people in a darkened world. And yet not only did we not become soul mates but we actively resisted the Greek cultural and philosophical invasion to the point where we were prepared to die for the cause!

Even more intriguing is a Midrashic tradition, based on the second verse in Genesis, in which Greece is equated with choshech, darkness. Why would the Torah consider the Greek contribution to the world to be darkness? If anything, it would seem that Greece was a spark of light rather than a shroud of darkness? Was it not Greek thought that planted the seeds of reason that ultimately displaced polytheism in modern society, as well as laying the groundwork for virtually all subsequent philosophical and scientific advances made by mankind? So why call Greece darkness?

The answer to all these questions, and the fundamental difference between Greek "enlightenment" and our own Jewish worldview, is that theirs is a homo-centric world, revolving around Man and Nature, while our world is theo-centric, revolving around G-d.

The Greeks saw the human mind as the ultimate tool to fathom the will of nature. To the Greek philosophers, reason reigned supreme, and if something could not be explained or grasped by the human mind, it simply didn't exist. And all the great contributions of the Greeks in the areas of the arts, poetry, music, sculpture, sports and philosophy were used by them in the service of Man, who was worshipped and put on a divine pedestal.

The Jews, on the other hand, see the human mind as a gift to use to fathom the will of the Creator. We always look for G-d in nature and in the beauty of the world. And everything that we have - every expression of beauty in this world and all the power of our human intellect - is to be used in the pursuit of holiness and G-dliness. True, the beauty of Yefes was blessed by Noach - but only if it dwells in the tents of Shem and is utilized as a means of coming closer to G-d.

So that while Hellenism and Greek philosophy and culture claimed to "enlighten" the world, the Jewish people saw it for what it truly was - a shroud of "darkness" which only sees the surface beauty of the world, much the same way a person who is in a dark room full of furniture can only identify objects by what he feels and senses.

And the answer to that darkness foisted upon us by the Hellenist Greeks and the Jewish reformers who allied with them was the light of the menorah and the miracle of the oil which burned for eight nights. This miracle brought home the lesson that nature and the beauty of this world is just a mask, and that G-d is really ever-present and in control. And its main purpose was to reinforce in the Jewish people the idea of hoda'ah - the admission and acknowledgment of G-d's central role in our lives as the Primary Source for all that we have and to Whom we are eternally indebted.

It is for this reason that it says in the Al Hanissim prayer that the Rabbis "established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great name". For the Torah concept of hoda'ah really is the main difference between the Greek and Jewish worldviews and what the entire battle of the Maccabees against the Hellenists was about. Are we going to "thank" G-d constantly, recognizing Him as the center of our universe, or will we worship Man and Nature as the ultimate deities in the world? This is the main idea of Chanukah. And when we celebrate the holiday and light the candles, we must realize that it is not merely a celebration of light over darkness but, more specifically, of Jewish hoda'ah and light over Greek philosophy and darkness.


Now some of you might be thinking that all this "Greek stuff" is interesting and probably of historical value - but what does it have to do with us today, living in the Western world of modern times? I mean, can't we just light the candles, buy the kids presents, eat the latkes, and get on with life? Who really cares about a fight between the Hasmoneans and the Hellenists that took place well over 2000 years ago?

The reality is, however, that the ideological battle that was waged way back when between our Maccabean ancestors and their Greek Hellenist enemies, and which culminated in the Chanukah miracle, is very much alive today, and, whether we are conscious of it or not, it influences how most of us moderns think about the world and our and G-d's place in it.

The historians tell us that Hellenism, the culture that blossomed in Athens, is the primary source of Western civilization. And in many ways, we in the United States and Canada are the cultural byproducts of a far more influential society than our own - that of ancient Greece. As Michael Grant wrote in The Founders of the Western World: We ourselves, whether we like it or not, are the heirs of the Greeks and the Romans. In a thousand different ways, they are permanently and indestructibly woven into the fabric of our own existence.

In the Western world of today, there exist two distinct philosophies, themselves a throwback to the two conflicting ideologies in the ancient battle between the Jews and the Greeks. Some of us moderns live a life centered around Man. Everything we do and enjoy is done for the pleasure and enjoyment of the thing itself. Even our decision to have children is often based on how it fits into our needs and lifestyle. And the religion and ritual observances that we choose to bring into our lives are really there to serve us - to make us feel better about ourselves. Additionally, we take the world for what we see on the surface. We examine current events as well as personal ordeals and challenges within the framework of what we can see and grasp with our own intellect.

And then there are others whose world centers around G-d, and who live a life of constant hoda'ah and recognition of G-d's role in everything that exists in the physical world. These people use the beauty of this world as a way of appreciating G-d's kindness, and they use their human minds to try to understand Nature so as to better understand and connect with G-d. Their children, money and everything else they have are all looked upon by them as gifts by G-d, given to them so as to bring out the hidden G-dliness and potential that exists in the world, right there beneath the surface. And all that transpires in the world is examined by them through the light of the Torah, in order to see the depth of G-d's active role in the affairs of man.

The first attitude and worldview is the legacy of the Greeks whose world centered around Man and his ability to enjoy the beauty of this world, and whose philosophy and science took the world at face value, not willing to accept anything that the human intellect couldn't fully grasp. And the second attitude represents the worldview of the Torah Jew, whose essence is hoda'ah and thanksgiving, and whose entire life revolves around G-d and man's relationship with Him.

It is up to us to decide where we stand in this ongoing battle between Greek philosophy and Torah Judaism. And even as we embrace all the positive and beautiful things that the ancient Greeks and Western civilization have to offer, we still have the choice of living a life of hoda'ah, and of enjoying all that beauty as a means of coming closer to our Father in Heaven, rather than as an end in itself.

This idea of hoda'ah is the most important lesson of Chanukah - and the underlying reason for all that we Jews do to celebrate the holiday.

So this year, as we gather together with our families on Chanukah to light the menorah and to give the kiddies all those latkes, driedels and Chanukah gelt, let's remember to think about G-d and thank G-d, and to acknowledge Him as the One Who gave us those precious children, as well as everything else we cherish and hold dear in our lives!


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