On Chanukah we celebrate two prominent miracles. One was the great the military victory of a small band of Jewish fighters against the more numerous, more experienced, better trained and better equipped Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) army. The other was the extended burning of the menorah lights for eight days.
Yet, our observance of Chanukah focuses exclusively on the lighting of candles, which commemorates the second miracle alone. Only in our prayers do we acknowledge the miraculous military successes. One explanation for this is that whereas these military victories strongly suggest Divine Intervention, the undeniable miracle of one cruse of oil burning uninterruptedly for eight consecutive days points directly to it.
What is the reason of Chanukah? … For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils contained there. When the Hasmoneans defeated them, they searched and found only one jug of oil that possessed the seal of the High Priest. It contained only enough oil for one day’s lighting. A miracle occurred and the lamp burned for eight days. (Talmud, Shabbos 21b)
I would like to suggest another reason, one rooted in the great ideological divide that existed between Judaism and Greek culture. In the ancient world, no nation was more foreign to the Jews than the Greeks, who differed on every level, including such key areas as religious beliefs and social values.
- Belief in a Higher Authority – The Jews were (and are) monotheistic, believing in one all-powerful, omniscient God. The Greek were polytheistic, worshiping multiple deities.
- Nature of God – The Jewish God was incorporeal, possessing no physical attributes or limitations. He was perfect and holy. Greek gods were human in form, behavior, and interests.
- Source of the Good – Jews: Knowledge of the good comes from God and His Torah. Greeks: Man’s Intellect provides such knowledge.
- Virtue – The Torah teaches virtuous behavior. The Greeks maintained that virtue comes from one’s knowledge.
- Reward & Punishment – The Jews believed that God is interested in human affairs. He rewards good behavior and punishes misdeeds. The Greeks maintained that the gods were not interested in human behavior and left people to their own devices.
- Fate & Human Action – Judaism saw a strong correlation between human behavior and their relationship with God. Greek ideology argued that Fate is predetermined and human actions cannot impact its forces.
- Afterlife – Judaism: Souls of the righteous live eternally. Hellenism: The Master of Knowledge will be united with a person’s Active Intellect.
- Government – Judaism: Theocracy. Hellenism: Democracy.
- Morality – The Torah imposes strict guidelines for public and private behavior, with a strong emphasis on modesty and refined social behavior. Greek culture saw no need for such limits. On the contrary, they argued that openness and exposure promoted the beauty of the human body.
To the Jews, human beings were created in the image of God. Greek deities were fashioned in the image of human beings. In the Jews’ mind, the physical world was something to be refined and elevated. The Greeks viewed the physical world as faultless, needing no further perfection.
Hellenism introduced a concept known today as Humanism, which places the human being as the center of all things. Hellenism showcased Man’s many physical and intellectual talents, and glorified the human body. It positioned the discovery of truth and life’s deeper meaning squarely on the shoulders of the intellect, rather than the Divine.
For a Jewish nation bent on preserving its religious purity, the Greek gods, with their wanton, capricious behavior, were wildly offensive. In a Jewish society firmly opposed to public indecency, Greek indiscretions in this area were shockingly distasteful. For a Jewish religion that singles out homosexuality and deviant sexual relationships as a crime, the Greek liberal attitude towards such matters was inconceivable.
Where the rest of the world saw Greek social, political, cultural and scholarly achievements as illuminating, our sages saw only spiritual and intellectual darkness.
“The earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water”. (Genesis 1:2) Rabbi Simon ben Lakish applied this verse to the foreign powers. ‘Now the earth was empty’ symbolizes Babylonia… ‘Astonishingly’ refers to Persia / Media… ‘Darkness’ symbolizes Greece. (Genesis Rabbah 2:4)
The military triumph that we commemorate with the celebration of Chanukah was incomplete when the menorah burned for those eight days. A great deal of fighting and bloodshed waited ahead. The power of the Hellenists remained formidable. Much of the Judean countryside was still under Greek control. Why then did our sages proclaim this relatively early date as one of celebration?
The answer is that Chanukah does not ultimately recount a physical scuffle. The Jews had previously shouldered the burden of foreign dominion without incident, and would continue to do so peacefully for much of the balance of the Second Commonwealth. Their struggle with the Greeks was primarily a spiritual one, to rid the land of Hellenistic ideology and culture. Once the initial objective of restoring spiritual freedom was realized, the rabbis proclaimed a day for celebration.
Had Chanukah been about the military triumph, it would have soon faded far into our distant past, together with many other military successes throughout Jewish history. What has secured its timeless and eternal place amongst our people has been its emphasis on the Jews’ spiritual conquest.
Now Judah celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days… He feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices, and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. They were so glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long pause, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it “Lights”. (Josephus, Antiquities 12:325)