24 Dec Chanukah’s Gift to Jewish History
The drama of Chanukah and our ancient struggle with Greece is centered upon the Mikdash and Jerusalem. The Seleucid legions rampaged through the holiest site on earth during an extended military battle which lasted close to ten years. Their overwhelming armies, mounted on indomitable elephants, had subdued the greatest militaries across the ancient world. Over the past three centuries the Jews had squared off against two powerful empires – Babylonia and Persia. Though we lost our first Mikdash, we outlasted the ferocious Babylonian armies as Nevuchadnezzar and his empire faded into historical oblivion. Across the vast Persian empire Jews had been targeted for Haman’s genocide but the nation rallied and rerouted his hideous conspiracy. The Jews now faced the full force of ancient Greece and only through dedication and self-sacrifice was Jerusalem preserved.
However, this battle wasn’t merely a military faceoff but a clash of different cultures and a war for the spirit of humanity. Ancient Greece was the first organized “civilization” – one which achieved major inroads in science, math, politics, philosophy, and almost every area of human experience. Additionally, Greece advanced the “theory” of religion as they no longer worshipped physical planets, grotesque sea monsters or ornate golden images. The gods of ancient Greece were more spiritual and less physical than the ancient idols of the pagan world as Greece served as a bridge between that ancient world of black magic and idolatry and the modern world of monotheism and ration. For these reasons Greece presented an even greater cultural challenge both to humanity and to the vanguard of the human spirit- the Jewish nation. This victory of Jewish spirit yielded a remarkable revolution: the great intellectual and spiritual legacy of Chanukah is the emergence of Torah sheba’al peh or the oral law of Torah. Over the next six hundred years the verbally transmitted logic of G-d was institutionalized and systematized in writing. The valor and courage of Chanukah directly led to the coalescence of the “Talmud” – a Torah enterprise which showcased the human ability to interpret the will of G-d as well as map His will to every aspect of human experience. How did Chanukah enable the greatest era of religious scholarship?
First of all, Chanukah generated Torah sheba’al peh by providing moral energy and national spirit. Torah study and inquiry of the Divine will is the natural expression of Jewish spirit and Jewish identity. As Torah is our innate language, whenever we experience the swelling of national pride and the surge of national energy, Torah creativity erupts. The rejuvenation of Jewish pride during Chanukah directly triggered this great Torah transformation.
This six hundred-year period – which commences around the period of the Chanukah miracle- marks one of the greatest intellectual supernovas of Jewish history and, of course, human intellectual history. The degree of scholarship and dedication to Torah study during this period is practically unparalleled in the annals of Jewish history. This symphony of the Jewish spirit was amplified by the energy of the Chanukah heroics.
In the modern era we are witnessing a similar phenomenon to the Chanukah-inspired evolution of Torah. The past two hundred years has witnessed a renaissance of the Jewish spirit as we have been restored to historical relevance. Having been invited ‘back into society’, we have spearheaded great advances in almost every sphere of human development. Most importantly, our return to our homeland and to statehood has restored the “suppressed spirit” of a once proud and sovereign nation. Inevitably, this reawakening of spirit has driven an unparalleled explosion of Torah study. There is more Torah being studied in our generation than at any point since the first Beit Hamikdash era. The upcoming celebrations surrounding the conclusion of the daf yomi cycle symbolizes the force of this Torah explosion; the surreal scenes which will unfold in stadiums and conferences halls across the world are fitting symbols of the spread and sweep of Torah in the modern world. This expansion of Torah would not have been as broad without the renewal of Jewish spirit over the past two centuries. In fact, the epicenter of this Torah revolution has now shifted to the epicenter of our national renewal- the modern state of Israel!
However Chanukah doesn’t only provide moral energy and reconstituted spirit to fuel the supernova of Torah. The installation of the Talmud is the final stage of the victory over Greek culture. The ancient gods of Greece presented Man with great ideas and grand ideals to which he could aspire. The god of Plato represented moral goodness and Greek ideology inspired Man to perfect his conduct and shape his intellect in the model of these gods and their value system. However, one element of religion is completely absent from ancient Greek religious philosophy- the notion of Divine commandments. In the world of Socrates and Plato the Divine will doesn’t penetrate the details of human experience but merely serves as a general compass for human behavior and moral conscience. The canonization of Torah sheb’al peh represented more than just the development of a complementary body of Torah. The oral law and its intricate and comprehensive system applies the will of G-d to each and every aspect of the human experience. It covers ritual and ceremonies just as it addresses illnesses and marital relationships. The Written law provides broad strokes about Divine will, morality and Jewish history but doesn’t present the level of magnification which the Oral law presents. Torah sheb’al peh anchors the totality of human experience to the will of G-d. The power of Torah sheba’al peh lies precisely in its ability to “shrink” the infinite essence of G-d into human-shaped and human-sized experiences. The arena of Torah sheb’al peh is a rendezvous between the unlimited knowledge of G-d and the human imagination. It is precisely at this exhilarating boundary that Torah sheba’al peh is nestled. Torah sheba’al peh doesn’t only emerge in the aftermath and energy of the Chanukah courageousness; Torah sheba’al peh rebuffs the Greek notion of religion bereft of Divine command. Torah sheba’al peh study stresses that Man doesn’t just pursue Divine experience through general ideas and tenets but discovers the will of G-d in the most minute details of human experience. Without Chanukah, Torah sheba’al beh would not have expanded so dramatically and without Torah sheba’al peh the religious victory of Chanukah would not have been complete.