Toward Shabbat – Truth and Beauty

I hope everyone is enjoying the Chanukah season and kindling the Chanukah Lights in the evening. At the heart of the festival is the joy of the Temple rededication in Jerusalem after the incredible victory of the vastly outnumbered Maccabees over the Syrians who had defiled it. The rededication of the Temple would have been impossible if there had not been a powerful commitment on the part of the Jewish people to their heritage and their faith. However, our Sages remind us that we should also remember to rededicate our personal temples, the temples in our hearts at this time as well. We must continually bring more light into the world amidst the transient darkness. Just as the community of Israel is instructed to build a sanctuary for Hashem, so too we are each instructed to build a sanctuary for Hashem in our hearts. Just as we were given the mitzvah of purifying the oil in the Holy Temple, so too we must ensure that there is pure oil in our personal temple.
If the truth be told, not all Jews at that time (2nd Century BCE) had this sense of dedication, and in every generation, we are tempted to assimilate to the cultural values of the larger community that surrounds us. In those days, there were in fact the Hellenists who were quite content to assimilate into the larger Greek culture. They adopted the Greek gods, the Greek language, Greek sports, Greek modes of dress, Greek names. Hebrew was neglected. The Sabbath and Jewish festivals were gradually replaced by pagan observances. Some of the Hellenists even underwent a painful surgical procedure to undo their circumcision so that they might appear in the public arena in the nude. But because there were enough Jews who cared enough about preserving Judaism, their distinctive way of life, and their own spiritual identity, they decided to oppose this vast assimilation. Without their fierce determination, there would have been no temple rededication. That is true in our very day as well. We live under very tempting opportunities that lead us away from our tradition, yet Chanukah reminds us that there will always be a strong contingent of people who will fight for continuing the beauty of our tradition. These souls recognize the importance of ensuring that our tradition thrives and flourishes in the very culture that we live in and that we shine its light in the world.
The historian Josephus writes that in the 2nd century Jewish community there was also an immense struggle WITHIN the Jewish community as well, leading to a near civil war. Different factions in the community fought to shape the future direction of the Jewish people. Torah-based Jews clashed with Hellenistic Jews, traditionalists vs. assimilated Jews: would be Greeks contended against senior, committed Jews. However, Josephus points out though the traditionalists were victorious, they did not banish Greek culture in its entirety. Not only have hundreds of Greek words and concepts entered the Talmud and Midrash, but Greek science, philosophy, and aesthetics, have found a place in the writings of Maimonides and other commentators. (The Septuagint, a translation of the Torah into Greek also suggests a mutual influence that was prevalent. The Talmud (Megillah 9B) says that the Sages permitted the Torah Scrolls to be written in Greek. Though this allowed the reading of the Torah in the vernacular to increase the spread of the Torah amongst the masses, the commentators also suggest that this translation to the vernacular was a ‘curse.’ It had detrimental consequences since translation into the vernacular allowed people to read the Torah text without mastering the holy Hebrew language, and though the literal level increased to a wider number of people within the community, the deeper level of Jewish knowledge was attenuated).
The Midrash Shachar also affirms the positive influence that Greek culture added to Jewish tradition. As it states in Genesis 9:27, (in Noah’s blessing to his sons Yiftach and Shem”): “May the beauty of Yiftach dwell in the tents of Shem.” The Midrash identifies Yiftach in the future as Greece and identifies Shem as the forerunner of Israel. This suggests the validation of extracting the positive aspects of Greek culture, (music and poetry) and adding its beauty to the sublime concepts of our eternal Torah and its communication with the Divine. As Heinrich Heine, the 19th century German Romantic Poet, born to assimilated Jewish parents, famously said, “For the Greeks, beauty is truth, and for the Hebrews, truth is beauty.”
Can the positive aspects of modernity (science and art) integrate and complement our Jewish tradition today, our eternal values of ethics, humility and awe before G-d; can this dance increase the harmony in our world? Can Jewish culture make a positive impact on the outer culture and inject ethical values, values of justice, of loving behavior within our community as images of what an enlightened ethos can achieve.
There are those who believe (traditionalists) that our modern culture is too overwhelming with temptations, with excess of materialism and hedonism, that lead one away from a life of ‘Holiness’ and thus it is prudent to live separately from the outer culture; and those who believe that encounter with the larger culture enables us to introduce our enlightened values to others, while imbibing from the positive dimensions of modernism. The latter view claims that Judaism throughout our history has integrated positive dimensions from various cultures throughout the eons, and introduced new customs as we grow and change through history. The historian Josephus confirms this in our encounter with Hellenism. However, the lure of the outer culture is so intense, that it may at times require the balancing voice and practice of extremists such as the Maccabbees to ward of a disastrous, extreme assimilation
The different energies prevalent at the time of the 2nd century BCE, and the story of Chanukah awaken us to the complexity and tensions of living in a modern culture, and preserving our unique destiny as a people of ‘Light’ who must bring a unique message to our world, one that emphasizes holiness, justice, love ,and awe and gratitude to our Creator. The tensions that different groups within our community create to maintain their cherished view as the correct response to modernity makes our challenge all the greater. Only with increased tolerance for the views of disparate groups can we create an example of harmony that will be the example, (the guiding Light ‘ of Chanukah) necessary to create the Messianic world that we are charged to create.
May we all imbibe from the beauty of the shimmering candles, always giving off light and never diminishing in the process, may we be inspired by this Light and , the shining candle within all of us and bring the rededication of the pure oil that burns with each of us. May the light of the Shabbat candles combine with the Light of the Chanukah candles to make this Shabbat the brightest illumination and revelation of G-d’s Light waiting for us to spread its beauty throughout our world, and may it be so! Amen.
Have a beautiful Shabbat, one filled with both beauty and truth,
Rabbi Mel