It is a famous question in the Talmud, “What is Chanukah?” The Talmudic response is well known; the Greeks attempted to impose their pagan beliefs on the Jews, seizing the Holy Temple, the symbol of monotheism in the world. The Jews, led by the family of priests named the Maccabees, rebelled. After the victory they found one cruse of oil, and as the Talmud states, “a miracle happened, it burned for eight days instead of one.” Enough time to create a new supply.
In modern times, we tend to view Chanukah in a societal prism. It is seen as a battle between freedom and oppression, good and bad, religious rights and those who would like to deny them. And of course the eight nights are filled with candle lighting and Chanukah Gelt (Jewish tradition is not to give gifts, but Gelt-money. Children are encouraged to give some of it to charity.)
But what is it really about?
It was Menelous, a Hellenized Jew, installed as the High Priest, who offered a swine on the Altar in the Temple. He, along with many other Jews, had been drawn to the Hellenistic culture that had been imported to ancient Israel by Alexander the Great and his successors. It was a culture that worshiped body over spirit, and idols instead of G-d; it celebrated Greek language and culture instead of the sacred teachings of Torah. As much as it was a battle between Greeks and Jews, it was a civil war between Jews allied with the Greeks and Jews loyal to their traditions.
In essence, Chanukah was a conflict over ideas and values. In a sense that conflict continues today; however, there is no despotic king attempting to impose his pagan culture upon us. But we do live in a time when the cultural norms, some reflective of Jewish values and some not, overwhelm us. For a Jew who strives to place Jewish ideals center stage, it becomes a difficult balancing act.
How do you find that middle ground? How do you navigate the balance between an overwhelming modern culture and the classic teachings of the Torah?
There is one way—study Torah. Sadly the Jewish literacy of most adults is limited. Few can read a page of Talmud, decipher a line of the Torah in Hebrew, or peruse the Code of Jewish law with the commentaries. Most Jewish adults have a strange kind of juvenile rejection of Jewish learning. Hebrew school was decades ago and consisted of a rote-like preparation for Bar Mitzvah. Hebrew school is a nostalgic memory at best, not something intellectually rich, whose ideas have contemporary relevance.
For generations, the great Jewish classics have remained ominous volumes filled with long pages of cryptic text. Today most of those works have been translated and are filled with study tools that help the novice open up the world of Jewish scholarship. No longer is Jewish learning relegated to the few and the elite. Our community is filled with Jewish learning opportunities.
So, this Chanukah find out why the Jews really did revolt against the Greeks and discover how the ancient teachings of Torah can have relevance in your life.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is rabbi at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.