Hanukkah seems to be a strange holiday.
The Jewish people have always been proud of being called the “People of the Book.” Over the millennia we have fought book burnings and pogroms against the world of the intellect. Ours has been the universe of the mind and thought. Our days and nights were occupied with study and argument, searching and analysis.
So why were the heroes of Hanukkah — the ancient Chashmonayim — so opposed to the seemingly similar world of the Lyceum and its atmosphere of discussion and debate? What could be errant about the teachings of the pioneers of Greek philosophy such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle?
The answer goes not only to the heart of Hanukkah but of the Jewish people itself. The Greeks had brilliant minds but were missing something even more important. The Hebrew word is Mesorah, which translates roughly as tradition. For the Jew, tradition is even more important than original thought. Judaism values innovation and creativity but only within a context.
The premise of Judaism is that there is a Higher Power who not only created us but also is constantly involved in our lives. Within certain parameters we are free to be extremely resourceful and imaginative. Beyond them we are venturing into the abyss of heresy and sacrilege. For the Jew there are divine commandments. For the Greeks there were only man-made rules.
Many Godless movements and societies in history have illustrated the moral dangers of the Greek path. Both the communists and Nazis professed to adhere to ethical systems. But in the end they deteriorated into the devastation wrought by Hitler and Stalin because they were self-serving and devoid of objectivity.
Hanukkah celebrates the partnership of man and God but only when man follows His guidance. Man lights the menorah but God makes it burn for eight days. Man fights the war but God makes them win miraculously. Man obeys the Torah and God gives him life to continue. It is no coincidence that the oil which was found had the seal of the Kohain Gadol — the High Priest. The Hanukkah menorah was lit by a new generation of heroes. But it connected them to the spiritual leader of an earlier generation who had paved the way.
That is the story of Hanukkah and the story of the Jewish people.