There was once a public debate between a rabbi and an astrophysicist regarding the nature of our universe. The astrophysicist, representing the atheist perspective, confidently approached the podium and began addressing the audience: “I don’t know much about Judaism, but I believe I can sum it up in a few words: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” With that, he went on to detail how physicists could now adequately explain the nature of our universe, without the need for religion. When he finished his speech, it was the rabbi’s turn to address the audience and represent the religious approach. With a sparkle in his eye, he turned to the crowd, and said: “I don’t know much about astrophysics, but I believe I can sum it up in a few words: Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.” With that, he went on to deliver the rest of his speech.
The Age-Old Debate
Spiritual debate has been a recurring phenomenon since the beginning of time. Chanukah is when we tap into the spiritual debate between the Jews and the Greeks, as the Syrian-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 (T’hilim 69:3) – the Greeks sought to “drown” us in their secular culture, replacing spirituality with atheism and hedonism. The Midrash says that the Syrian-Greeks attempted to darken our eyes: “hichshichah eineihem” (B’reishis 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 Syrian-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, Sheim and Yefes, with a seemingly peculiar brachah: “Yaft Elokim l’Yefes, v’yishkon b’ohalei Sheim” – Hashem will grant beauty to Yefes, and he (Yefes) will dwell within the tents of Sheim. Yefes is the precursor to the Greeks, and Sheim 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 b’Oraisa, u’vara alma” – Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world (B’reishis 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 a 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 Sheim, 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.
Rav Hutner explains that Chanukah is the chag of Torah SheB’al Peh, the Oral Torah. Chanukah is the one holiday with no source in Torah SheBichsav. Unlike Purim, it does not even have a megillah; it is completely of Rabbinic origin. Furthermore, it doesn’t even have a mishnah; the only canonized source for Chanukah is a few sources in the Gemara that mention Chanukah in an almost coincidental manner. Why is this so?
Chanukah represents the battle against the Greeks. The Greeks claimed that the only source of truth is the human intellect; nothing transcends human logic. The Jews not only showed that there is a transcendent source of truth, but they took it one step further. When done appropriately, with humility and proper recognition of the Torah’s transcendent root, the limited human being can actually use his human intellect to participate in the creation of Torah. This is the unbelievable nature of Torah SheB’al Peh: Human beings are given the ability to participate and even create novel Torah ideas and insights. The greatest victory over the Greeks wasn’t to simply prove that transcendent Torah exists; it was to reveal that even the human intellect can connect to Torah, even limited human beings can connect to the infinite.
Our Place of Connection
The Greeks tried to spiritually destroy our Beis HaMikdash, the point of connection to the transcendent, where Hashem most intimately connects to this physical world. After our victory on Chanukah, we reignited the flame of that spiritual building. And every year since, we must reignite that same flame within our own homes; we must inaugurate our own personal Beis HaMikdash.
Every day, we get to choose whether we’ll become further entrenched in secular and Greek culture, or if we’ll build our connection to the infinite, the transcendent, and carry the message of Chanukah deep within our hearts. Our life is like building a personal Beis HaMikdash, building an ever-deeper and ever-closer relationship with Hashem. It’s the result of every brick we lay down; every day is like another brick, another opportunity to add to our eternal home, our eternal self, our eternal existence.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.