Chanukah – the festival of lights – is one of the most cheerful Jewish holidays, and it remains one of the most widely observed by American Jews (after Passover and Yom Kippur). Many of us learned in Hebrew school that the Greeks banned Judaism, the Jews fought them and won, and a single crucible of oil that should have burned for only one day burned for eight. However, there is a deeper meaning behind Chanukah.
Chanukah contains special significance in Judaism’s mystical tradition. Unlike many conflicts in Jewish history in which our oppressors wanted to harm the Jews physically – as in the story of Purim – the Greeks did not wish to destroy the Jews. They wanted to destroy Judaism. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains in his discourse, Victory of Light, that the Greeks’ “entire war [against the Jews] was a spiritual one.” Indeed the Greeks considered the Torah a wealthy repository of wisdom and ethical teachings. However, they wanted the Jews to study the Torah in a purely intellectual, detached manner. The Greeks would have let the Jews perform the mitzvos so long as they observed them as traditional folkways and not as embodying the will of G-d. They had great respect for those mitzvos that were rationally understood such as ‘Do not murder’ and ‘Do not steal.’ The Rebbe explains that they could even agree with following the irrational or super rational mitzvos (e.g. kosher, not mixing wool and linen) so long as there was reason to believe that G-d legislated them for a rational reason. This is what Hellenism wished to impose on Judaism.
The Jews do not keep the mitzvos this way. While Judaism encourages one to make the laws apart of oneself through studying and contemplating their rational basis, the truth is we only do them because they are the will of G-d i.e. because He said so. This applies to both the rational and irrational mitzvos.
And so the miracle of Chanukah was that Judaism survived and overcame this challenge. The Greeks valued intellect in of itself. Judaism greatly values the intellect, but acknowledges that it can only take one so far. Every Jew has a light inside of them that connects them to Hashem in a way that transcends intellect. A person may engage in many non-Jewish religious practices or meditations and think they are getting a spiritual high, but it is all in their mind. It is a man-made invention. By contrast, a person can perform all the mitzvos, study Torah and regardless of how they feel, connect with the Infinite. Chanukah celebrates the Jew’s ability to transcend his/her limitations and become connected with Hashem not simply because the Jew wants to or because the laws ‘make sense,’ but because our souls have an inborn desire to return to their natural source of light.
Editor’s note: Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of the George Washington University and currently studies at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Gotkin.
Victory of Light, A Chasidic discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Chasidic Heritage Series.