Perpetual Chanukah: A Sermon in the Prepositions

For my son, Avraham Benjamin, who was born the first night of Chanukah.

Perpetual Chanukah

This Chanukah in particular, 2019, Jews are struggling with the growing sense that it’s happening again. Less than eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is again on the rise in the West. I don’t need to recount the litany of current events and the fear they’re causing.

I find both succor and armor in Chanukah. The lights and prayers give not just psychic comfort and hope, but are the actual tools to resist the dark tide of history.

Here’s what I mean. On the first night of Chanukah 1st night chanukahwe 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 lazmanto 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 as this one hidden in the Chanukah prayers. Our holidays is 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 the future.

And it is war. Chanukah was a contest over who would rule the Temple, and we celebrate that our nationalists won, re-occupied the Temple, cleansed it of idolatry, and re-asserted monotheism symbolized in a miracle. But it was also a war for what beliefs would 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.

Pythagoras and the Greek Religion

The war of the Maccabees against the Greeks was brewing for centuries, even before Alexander occupied ancient Israel in the fourth century. We can find its roots in the essential differences between Greek and Jewish thought.

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, 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.

Inspired by the wisdom and mysticism of these other cultures, he returns to Greece and founds a mystic-scientific-cosmological-communal brotherhood preaching an ascetic view of the cosmos and our personal role in it. Pythagoras operates it like a leader of a cult or mafia. He is even supposed to have had a star pupil, Hippasos, murdered during a symposium cruise for expounding on the existence of irrational numbers like √2. Pythagoreans communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence.

Pythagoras preached that reality is only that which can be measured and understood through rational numbers. This is a pure abstraction of a material worldview so profound and powerful it later inspires among others, Plato (ca 425-ca 328 BCE) and Epicurus (341–270 BCE). Plato believed that the universe was static, made up of perfect, ideal forms. The highest activity of the human was to contemplate the universe using reason – rational thought – and discern how these ideal forms project themselves onto the material world to create the shadow play of reality. Greek philosophy is a religion that worships the rational human mind, much as modern secularism and our scientific culture.

Epicurus preached that there is no afterlife, no Divine Creator, and that we should lvie the best life we can while we have it. Today we think of an epicurean as a sensualist, but the Greek philosophy designed an entire ethical way of balancing gratification with the avoidance of pain and creating a positive civic life. He gives his name, at least apparently, to the archetype of the Jewish heretic, the epikoros. The Talmud singles out the Jew who denies the authority of the rabbis and mocks them personally. Dante reserves a ring of hell for Epicurus and his followers, whose punishment was to burn in their graves until the dead are resurrected, at which time they would be left behind and never re-unite with their souls.  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.

The Second Chanukah

Chanukah celebrates our allergy to the Greeks and the events of 167 BCE. The Talmud reinforces it by issuing a prohibition against teaching our sons Greek (Sotah 49b). This is mysterious. By the time of the Talmud, 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 antipathy to Greek, its potential for destruction, is illustrated in a story which the Talmud tells to support its ruling, a second, darker Chanukah.

76-67 BCE – Aristobulus and Hyrkanos, great-grandnephews of Judah HaMaccabee, split the kingdom. Hellensim 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 must have thought of themselves as liberal cosmopolites, sophisticated moderns. The Greeks have put their stamp on a new and irresistible view of the world for centuries now. Why cling to benighted old traditions and superstitions? Judah Maccabee was, after all, a religious zealot, a fundamentalist survivalist from the backwaters. We would do well to finally put his bigotry and the old Civil War behind us in favor of more enlightened, urbane culture of the Greeks. 

In the spirit of his grand-uncle, Aristobulus leads the conservative Pharisees, trying to preserve the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple. He seizes Jerusalem and the Temple to protect it.  So Hyrkanos besieges Aristobulus. An old man inside the walls betrays the Pharisees by using “Greek wisdom” to send secret, coded messages to the enemy, who then 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 explains that “Greek wisdom refers to a set of cryptic expressions or gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers or the nobility), not by common people.” The Pythagoreans 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 was brought forward, just as our split-fingered sign of the kohanim in the Temple survives.

One could see how the Seleucid 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 say how it would continue to threaten Jewish existence.

The story of this second Chanukah comes at the end of tractate Sotah a famously dark prophesy of the total collapse of Jewish world called Yeridas HaDoros – the Descent of the Generations. Yeridas HaDoros 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

Pythagoras’ vision of perfectionism and purity of form still holds sway today. Indeed, Pythagoreanism is the foundation of Western culture. It connects the Hellenic culture of the 5th c BCE of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle with Roman culture. It connects Roman philosophy that dominated in the time of the destruction of the Temple with the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church. The strict belief of Western science in rationality branches out fifteen centuries later into science along with the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the origin of the other branches of Christianity. Pythagoreanism represents a continuous tradition of the perfectibility of humans and the rational basis of the universe and everything in it. The cosmos is a rational, deterministic, ideal machine governed by unified laws we can elucidate with our minds.^

Contrast the static Pythagorean philosophy of being to our Jewish cosmology of 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 method of Jewish discourse to arrive 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. One 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 capturing voices and commentaries and commentaries on commentaries separated by centuries and thousands of miles and cultures. The choppy sea of Talmud exemplifies what Plato scorned as chaotic, subjective aesthetika and rhetorika as opposed to his orderly logos. The quintessential Greek text is the algebraic proof. Like Pythagorean theorem, it leads to a single, clarifying answer: the way and the truth no one gets to except through the one. The Jew’s is an argument leading to more questions.

Not just an academic debate

The fundamental incompatibility between these two cosmologies leads to a perpetual Chanukah. Jews are always suspended between the b’zman hazeh and l’zman hazeh. The Talmud burns in Europe, and then so do the Jews.

This is not just an academic exercise in philosophy. The twentieth century begins with work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, “showing” 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, an updating of the Greco-Christian Being vs. Becoming duality, 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 and has been influenced by him. He was also an official member of the Nazi party.***

Nazism has its link to philosophies of materialism, constructivism, deconstruction and moral relativism that lead to the mechanization and disregard for the sanctity of human existence. We’re all just stuff, at the end, the soul an illusion. It is the same Greek wisdom that lies in the heart of the traitor of Jerusalem and is the source of ongoing Jewish assimilation to Western culture.

This year when I hold the flaming candle, I’m thankful for getting to this moment with my family and having the weapon in my hand to prevail in the long struggle.

David Porush, San Mateo, 2019


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, 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.