The meaning of Hanukkah in a multifaith society

Jewish MenorahAlthough Hanukkah has become the most interfaith friendly of Jewish festivals, with lightings in Parliament, messages from politicians, menorahs in public squares and even on top of cars, its fundamental message might be taken to be rather different.

One reading might be this: Hanukkah is a rejection of the Greeks and Greek wisdom; it is a repudiation of any external, non-Jewish ideas and influences. The Hellenists had to be fought, defeated, and driven out so that the Temple could be purified, restored to its pristine condition both physically and religiously. By that example, we should maintain our enmity towards all non-Jewish ideas, and do our best to keep them out of our lives and minds.

I think that would be the wrong approach, which becomes clear when we look a little deeper at the Hanukkah story. How did the Land of Israel become Greek in the first place? In 332 BCE Alexander the Great conquered the Land, and was welcoming and highly regarded by the Jews. Alexander remains a Jewish name to this day for that very reason. During the time of Greek rule there was some cultural assimilation, but the Greeks left the Jews alone as far as religion was concerned.

It was only after a period of unrest in the 160s that Antiochus IV required Jews to eat pork, break Shabbat and desist from circumcising their sons. The Temple was taken over as a centre of a new religion, fusing Judaism with the Greek gods. All of this was obviously abhorrent. This is when the Maccabees rose up and overthrew the Syrian Greeks and their Hellenised Jewish allies.

After that, not universally, but certainly in parts of the Jewish tradition, the mutual tolerance and fruitful interplay of Greek and Jewish ideas re-emerged, from Philo of Alexandria, to Maimonides who admired Aristotle, to Solomon Ibn Gabirol, a philosopher ultimately inspired by Plato.

The Talmud even found a source for this positive symbiosis: “God will enlarge Yafet and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.” Yafet symbolised the Greeks, and the Rabbis taught that their culture could coexist fruitfully with Jewish ideas. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, the greatest Jewish religious authority in early twentieth-century Germany, expanded on this idea when he wrote:

our Sages intended through this statement to allow entry of the entire range of culture and learning, insofar as they ennoble humanity, into the tents of Shem, i.e. the Jewish houses of study. This has always been the approach of the great men of Israel. Jewish law and belief wish for and expect not the stupefaction but the enlightenment of their true believers and adherents.

Jews should indeed hold out against ideas incompatible with Judaism, just as the Maccabees held out against the Greek pantheon over two thousand years ago, but that does not mean a stop to thinking, investigating, and exploring. If that happened the Jewish tradition would be immeasurably poorer — indeed, it would be missing most of medieval Jewish philosophy. The Jewish People would ossify and stagnate. Yes, there are pitfalls, but as the leading American Modern Orthodox Rabbi of the twentieth century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, said “sometimes plane crash, but people still fly”.

It is vitally important for the continued flourishing of Judaism in the modern world to steer a middle position between the two extremes of total exclusion and unqualified acceptance of external ideas. If it was decided that anything goes, in Jewish life or in Jewish thought, then there is no more Judaism. At the same time, any attempt to build up the walls of the intellectual ghetto that came crashing down with the arrival of modernity, will create enclave Judaism, which might suit some — and might even be beneficial to some — but will not be a suitable for the vast majority of Jews in the world today. It will only serve to shrink and weaken the Jewish People.

The Jewish task is to remain committed to tradition without fleeing from modernity, to find a way to bridge those two poles, but uphold the legacy of Hanukkah and also of Maimonides — and above all to remain a living and relevant religious force, now and in the future.

Dr Benjamin Elton is the Chief Minister and Senior Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.


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