For my son, Avraham Benjamin, who was born the first night of Chanukah.
“When the hoof of the swine touches Jerusalem’s walls, the entire foundation of Israel itself shakes.” – Talmud: Sotah
Chanukah is both alarming and comforting. Jews are struggling with the growing sense that it’s happening again. Less than eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is on the rise in the West. I don’t need to recount the litany of current events and the fear they’re causing. I’m alarmed that we’re still fighting the culture war it commemorates.
The lights and prayers give psychic comfort and hope. They are also the actual weapons to resist the dark tide of history.
Here’s what I mean. On the first night of Chanukah we say a third prayer, the Shehecheyanu, thanking God for bringing us “to this time” (lazman hazeh). This prayer always gets me whenever I say it. Its message is for anyone: be grateful for all the things good and bad that occurred to you, because they brought you to this lovely intersection of fate. Every moment is a miracle.
The second prayer, recited every night over the candles, rhymes with this third. We say bazman hazeh – “in this time” – implying ‘this season on the calendar when we remember what God did for us on Chanukah 22 centuries ago’: letting one night’s worth of oil keep the lamps lit for eight nights after the Maccabees regained the Temple from the Greeks.
There’s a profound lesson in the prepositions, from bazman – in this season repeated every year – to lazman, to this very moment – this particular personal intersection of fate. We’re being told this isn’t just a nice commemoration of history. It’s still happening. We still are in history, or history is brought to our doorstep, at this very moment. That’s why we’re supposed to display the menorah, even putting it out in front of our homes for everyone to see.
The rest of the Jewish calendar repeats the same sermon. Our holidays are a survival kit, not just Chanukah but Purim and Passover (and Succot and Shavuoth and Tisha B’Av and Lag B’Omer and …), they are rehearsals of past success but they also summon the forces to win past and current and future wars.
And it is war, a war for what beliefs rule over the hearts, minds, and souls of individual Jews, a war over what kind of world we inhabit, a war over nothing less than how we see reality itself. Chanukah was a contest over who would rule the Temple. We celebrate that our nationalists won, re-occupied the Temple, cleansed it of idolatry, and re-asserted monotheism. The symbol of Chanukah, the prolongation of lights beyond any rational natural explanation, is the very idea of a modern miracle. Its message is very simple: Mere rationality can’t tell us everything.
Pythagoras and the Greek Religion of Rationality
The war of the Maccabees against the Greeks was brewing for centuries, even before Alexander occupied ancient Israel in the fourth century BCE. We can find its roots in the essential differences between Greek and Jewish thought, two ideologies, philosophies, religions.
Pythagoras (570-490 BCE) is considered the father of Greek philosophy, and is even credited with inventing the word. The son of Greek nobility, around the age of twenty he travels around the Middle East and Mediterranean for twelve years. He visits Egypt. On his way back, according to some biographers, he stops at Mt. Carmel to visit Elijah’s cave for several weeks. He then journeys to Babylon at a time that would have coincided with the Jewish exile.
Who knows what he learned from the Jews. But the official version of his bio says that inspired by the wisdom and mysticism of these other cultures, he returns to Greece and founds a mystic-scientific-cosmological-communal brotherhood. He preached that reality is only that which can be measured and understood through rational numbers. Pythagoras operates his school like a cult devoted to purity of thought, rationality. Like many cults, it veers towards extremism, maybe even a mafia: secret signs, ascetic practices, rites of initiation, vows of loyalty. Some say he even had a star pupil, Hippasos, murdered during a symposium cruise. Hippasos’ crime? He revealed the existence of irrational numbers (like √2). Hippasos broke the code of rational numbers and so was thrown, figuratively and literally, overboard.
Pythagoras’s material worldview was so profound and powerful it later inspires Plato (425-328 BCE). Plato also believed that the universe was made up of perfect, ideal, eternal forms. The highest activity of the human was to contemplate the underlying reality of the universe. Using reason, we can discern these ideal forms, which project themselves onto the material world to create the shadow play of illusion that we only think is reality. While metaphysical, the mind of Plato’s god is fixed, static, immutable.
Epicurus (341–270 BCE), following the Pythagoras and Plato, preached that there wasn’t anything metaphysical at all besides the rationality of the human. There is no afterlife, no Divine minds, oinly human ones gifted with reason. The most reasonable thing is to live the best life we can while we have it because there’s nothing else. Today we think of an epicurean as a mere sensualist, but Epicurus designed an entire life to balance seeking gratification and avoiding pain. In his view, acting ethically in civic life also reduced the pain of society. He gives his name to the archetype of the Jewish heretic, the epikoros. Even in the 20th century, no less a philosopher than my bubby Dora used a Yiddish variation of his name as a curse. “Apikoyris!” she would spit when another Jew offended her sense of what a mensch should be. Though she may not have known from Plato, she still had the old Jewish instinct to reject the Greek idea that there’s no need to acknowledge, much less be grateful to, a God active in every life. She knew better.
The Second Chanukah: “The hoof of the swine”
Chanukah celebrates the Jews’ victory over Greek philosophy through a military venture. As the story of underdogs vanquishing a mighty enemy, it has universal appeal. Even Communists have celebrated the Maccabees. But Rav Soloveitchik tells us that the real courage of the Maccabees wasn’t military but cognitive and cultural, a commitment to the truth of the soul and as such is particularly and eternally Jewish.
A few centuries after the events of Chanukah, the Talmud still issues a prohibition against teaching our sons Greek (Sotah 49b). At first, though, it seems ambivalent. Greek was considered high learning. Even Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE) boasts, “There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.” But the Greek potential for seduction of the Jews is illustrated in a story which the Talmud then tells of a second, darker Chanukah.
It’s the first century BCE in the kingdom of Judah. Aristobulus and Hyrkanos, ironically the great-grandnephews of Judah HaMaccabee, split the kingdom. Hellenism again creeps back to dominate Jewish culture, a century after the original Chanukah story. Hyrkanos leads the urbane, progressive Seleucid [Greek] faction. Assimilated Jews resist turning back to the old primitive rituals and politics. They thought of themselves as sophisticated moderns making progress towards enlightenment. Why cling to benighted old traditions and superstitions? Judah Maccabee was, after all, a religious zealot, a fundamentalist survivalist from the backwaters. You can read the Seleucid’s minds, because they were just like us: we’re enlightened and urbane, right? After all, modernism offers science and the beauty of the mind expressed in science and all the pleasures of the arts and life in the media marketplace. Everyone famous and cultured is over here.
In the spirit of his grand-uncle, Aristobulus leads the conservative Pharisees to preserve the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple. He seizes Jerusalem and the Temple to protect it. Hyrkanos besieges Aristobulus in 76 BCE. Aristobulus is holding out, but then one old man inside the walls betrays the Pharisees by using “Greek wisdom” to send secret, coded messages to the enemy. The Seleucids trick the Pharisees into bringing up a pig in a sling. The desecration literally shakes the foundations of Jerusalem and can be felt throughout Israel. It breaks their spirit.
Rashi (11th century CE) explains that when the Talmud refers to “Greek wisdom” it means a set of cryptic expressions or gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers or the nobility), not by common people.”
The Pythagoreans, too, communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence. No doubt this code or something like it was preserved, just as our split-fingered sign of the priests in the Temple survives.
One could see how many Jews would find assimilation so attractive, and why Jewish thinkers and students could be seduced, even from within the walls of Jerusalem itself. The Greek worldview, in one form or another, must have seemed, and continues to seem, the essence of enlightenment and modernism. of scientific rational thought. Yet, to the rabbis of the Talmud, Greek wisdom, the secret Pythagorean code, was the essence of assimilation. In their wisdom perhaps they saw how it would continue to erode Jewish existence.
The story of this second Chanukah comes at the end of the Talmud tractate Sotah, a famously dark prophecy of the total collapse of Jewish world called Yeridas HaDoros – the Descent of the Generations. It recounts in dismal detail for long pages and in great detail the complete corruption of Jewish values, family, civil respect and religious observance.* When the hoof of the swine touches Jerusalem’s walls,” says the Talmud at the end of its story of the betrayal of Jerusalem in Sotah,“the entire foundation of Israel itself shakes.”
Incompatible Views of the Cosmos
Pythagoreanism is at the foundation of Western culture. It persists from the Greeks to the Romans through Aristotle and Plato. It dominated in the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and in the centuries following during the rise of Christianity. The Greek philosophy is encoded in its ideal of the perfect man. It gets preserved in the theology of the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church which dominates Europe which celebrates Greek science alongside its appropriation of monotheism from the Jews. Ultimately the Greek ideal flourishes in a more secular neo-Platonic form in the Enlightenment and science. In short, there is a continuous tradition of the perfectibility of humans through our rational minds.
Ultimately, by the 20th century, it becomes fashionable once again to believe, like Epicurus, that the universe and everything in it is only rational and physical. The cosmos is a deterministic, ideal machine governed by unified laws we can elucidate with our minds.^
By contrast, the Jewish cosmology portrays an ever-blossoming, ever-unfolding, complex, imperfect and ineffable world of becoming. God’s face is always receding and hidden, yet God’s attention continuously creates the cosmos. Even the way Jewish tradition arrives at the truth contrasts sharply with the Greek. You need only compare a page of any conventional Western book with a page of the Talmud to get the idea. The former signifies a simple, clear stream of letters marching in lines across the page as the story proceeds in orderly fashion from beginning to middle to end. The Talmud plunges you into a hypertextual jumble: a noisy symposium of unfolding voices and commentaries and commentaries on commentaries separated by centuries and thousands of miles and cultures. The choppy sea of Talmud exemplifies what Platonism scorned as chaotic, subjective aesthetika and rhetorika as opposed to his orderly logos. The quintessential Greek text is the algebraic proof, the Pythagorean theorem. It leads to the truth, a single, final, clarifying proven answer.
The Jew’s is an argument leading to more questions.
Not just an academic debate
The ongoing incompatibility between these two cosmologies leads to a perpetual Chanukah. Jews are always suspended between the b’zman hazeh and l’zman hazeh. We are in history, in the historical tug of war between Jew and Greek even, many of us every day of our lives, within ourselves as the powerful gravitation of modern secular culture pulls us.
This is not just an academic exercise in philosophy.
The Talmud burns in Europe, and then so do the Jews. This is not a past participle.
The twentieth century begins with work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, preaching the Greek theology that all thought can be reduced to mathematically rigorous logic. They also say, “Modern philosophy is nothing more than a footnote to Plato.” Later, in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Russell declares Pythagoras the greatest of all philosophers.**
In the 1920s, Martin Heidegger reinserts Pythagoreanism into the heart of philosophy. Without going into his extraordinary influence over the twentieth century, including postmodernism and deconstruction, suffice it to say that virtually every thinker and theorist since has had to grapple with Heidegger. Heidegger also was an official member of the Nazi party. In 1933, he became Rector (President) of the University of Freiberg as it purged the Jews. Though he later mumbles some critiques of it, he never renounced his membership in the Nazi Party.
Nazism is the heir to the same Greek wisdom that the Maccabees fought and conquered. It lay in the heart of the traitor of Jerusalem. It is the source of ongoing Jewish assimilation to Western culture. In essence, it believes we’re all just stuff. It believes human rationality is the supreme entity in the universe, which is its reflection, also like reason and the brain itself, a vast complex machine. There’s nothing it can’t explain and map and conquer with mechanics. The soul is an illusion, the superstition of some kind of ghost or geist or guest in the machine.
Bubby still disagrees.
This year when I hold the flaming candle with my children and grandchildren, I’m thankful for getting to this moment with them. I pray I can explain that they have the weapons in their hand to prevail in our long Jewish struggle. I hope they recognize that we’re still in it. I kind of know they do. When they light the flame, I’m almost certain they will understand wordlessly that it signifies something more powerful and transcendent than the stuff and noise of the daily world, which they also enjoy, that there is also … that divine shining in their lives.
Thanks to classmates Boris Feldman, Josef Joffe, and Sam Tramiel, and special thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, who inspired the first version of this piece in 2014 for a siyyum hasefer. I’m also grateful to my chavrusa Ron Kardos, Pinchas Gardyn, and Yael Esther Berenfus whose input improved this immensely. However, all foolishness and errors in fact and judgment are my own.
^The Rambam, in Guide for the Perplexed, calls Aristotle, heir of Plato, “half a prophet.” Why half? Rambam says Aristotle fell short because he equated human nature with rationality alone. Aristotle’s ‘thinking being’ strives to rule the world through subjugation and calculation; Rambam’s “praying being” can be king of the world by elevating it. “When there’s nothing higher than intellect, intellect has no guiding light.”*Between the second century BCE and second century CE, during the era of the Talmud, Pythagoreanism enjoys a huge revival in Roman culture, what we now call neo-Pythagoreanism. Cicero, the famous Roman senator, and his good friend in the Senate, Nigidius Figulus, lead the revival around 50 BCE. Nigidius writes a 27-volume treatise of mathematics, grammar, astronomy and magic that becomes a classic, along with Cicero’s work, for centuries.
*In the first century CE, the sect of neo-Pythagoreans construct a Pythagorean Temple underground, at Porto Maggiore in Rome. It combines elements of paganism and Christianity. It is the site of secret sacrificial rites, necromancy, and is filled with images of the Greek gods. At the same time, it has an apse and nave, a new architectural form built with the Pythagorean ‘golden mean’ like the Acropolis, but meant to represent the cross, the same architecture we see in the great cathedrals of the Christian Europe and even in the humblest wooden Baptist churches today. But the connection is more than architectural.
**Interestingly, Russell’s last act, literally, in his life, is meant to shake the whole land of Israel. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 in Cairo, condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.
*** Victor Farias, in Heidegger and Nazism (1987) and Emanuel Faye in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005) show how Heidegger, who was an unapologetic and avowed Nazi, introduced Nazi violence into the scene of contemporary Western philosophy. His chief heir and leader of the Yale school of deconstruction, Paul DeMan, was exposed as having been a Nazi collaborator and writer during WWII. The monumental French thinker Jacques Derrida, himself an Algerian Jew, rose to DeMan’s defense in a shameful chapter in the history of postmodern thought.