How do you prepare for Hanukah?

Do you look for last year’s lyric-sheets of Hanukah songs?

Do you look up your recipe for latkes? Or sufganiyot?

Do you try to buy Hanukah candles enough in advance so that there’s no last-minute panic finding them in stores?

So far, so good.

But deeper preparation for the holiday can include taking some time to understand it better.

In the famous anecdote, Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, as a boy, asked his father why he had to read Torah again. “It’s the same this year as it was last year.” His father answered, “But are you the same?”

And there, in a nutshell, is the essence of Jewish learning. The texts,  even the major ideas (cruse of oil, menorah, 8 days, etc.) stay the same.

We are different as we come to the holiday each year.

One of the main themes underlying Hanukah is the clash between Hellenic and Jewish culture. This is far deeper and broader than simply that “Greeks” set up idols and offered prohibited animals in the Temple.

First, let’s understand who the “Greeks” were in this story. The fact is, they weren’t necessarily “Greeks” per se.

Alexander (the “Great”) conquered much of the known world of his day. Before embarking on his conquests, he had been a student of Aristotle’s (who had been a student of Plato, who had been a student of Socrates). His teacher filled him with the sense that Hellenism was the pinnacle of human culture: It hallowed the seemingly unlimited power of the human mind to search for knowledge and create beauty. Alexander wasn’t just “conquering the world.” He spread Hellenism, in the sincere belief that this was what would be best for the world, itself.

He died quite young.

Directly afterwards, his “empire” was split between his 3 surviving generals:
Antigonus established the “Antigonid” empire in Greece and Macedon.
Ptolemy established the “Ptolemaic” empire in Egypt (from which later came Cleopatra, who was in fact of Greek, not Egyptian, extraction).
Seleucus established the “Seleucid” empire from Asia Minor eastward to the Indus River.

Seleucus’ territory was made up of a remnant of Alexander’s “Greek,” or Macedonian army, combined with elements of the Persian empire that Alexander had beaten and “Hellenized.” It was therefore a culture with its roots in Greece, but not of strictly Greek ethnicity. It was the “Seleucid Greeks” who conquered Judea and attempted to “spread” or “impose” Hellenic culture on it (and us).

In the simple Hanukah story, the Maccabees fight back, defeating the “Greeks” and driving them from the Temple.

In reality, Hellenistic culture remained established among some Jews even after the advent of the Maccabees (or Hashmoni’im). Out of this came attempts to harmonize the two — arguably beginning with the philosophical writings of Philo of Alexandria (a Jew living in one of the great Ptolemaic cities), proceeding through Sa’adiah Gaon and reaching a certain peak in Maimonides. It really hasn’t finished. Even “Modern Orthodoxy” is an attempt to find a meeting ground between “Jewish” and “scientific” (the modern equivalent of “Hellenic”) ways of thinking. More recently, a recent (and present) generation is striving to harmonize  “Indian” and “Buddhist” ideas and practices with Jewish tradition, in much the same way the generations of the “Hanukah” story (and for hundreds of subsequent years) did with “Greek” or “Hellenic” ideas and practices. How much of the orderliness of the Talmud’s approach, for example, grew out of the Hellenic demand for orderliness in human thought? How much of the Talmudic “debate” grew out of “Greek” dialectic? And so on.

I brought this up previously in my review of Jay Michaelson’s book, “Everything is G-d”:

Long before that, Rabbi Milton Steinberg, z”l, wrote about this in “Judaism and Hellenism.” [1]

Anyone desiring a thought-provoking, eye-opening discussion of this cultural conflict would do well to read his wonderful essay.

Another interesting consideration is the application of aesthetic techniques to Jewish themes. Jewish culture might have been known for its wisdom and its music — especially in the First Temple period — but there doesn’t seem to be mention of fame for Jewish productions in visual arts (painting, etc.).

Today, however, serious Jewish artists abound. By “Jewish artists,” I mean those who apply artistic techniques that have evolved (and are still evolving) to examine, depict, contemplate or in some way present aspects of the Jewish cultural soul.

Some excellent examples of modern painting using the Hebrew alphabet (and lore about it) as a central theme can be seen in the work of award-winning artists Lynn Small and Dennis Paul at:

The “Hellenism” of the past is the “Humanism” of today. That’s not necessarily a “bad” thing: Look at the use of computers in Orthodox Jewish learning, for example. But it does suggest that the issue of the relationship of Jewish tradition to modern influences was not resolved with finality by the Hashmoni’im. The very attempt to combine aesthetic methods with Jewish/Hebrew concepts suggests that the “Hanukah” story might really be one without an end; newly confronted by every generation. Nor need it have a single answer even in our individual lives. While young, we might be more enamored with the impact of the arts or contemporary ideas than with tradition. As we grow older we might — without losing love for what we’ve experienced — also want to grow closer to that which connects us with the roots of who and what we are.


[1] Steinberg, Rabbi Milton; Judaism and Hellenism; in “Hanukah: The Feast of Lights,” Emily Solis-Cohen, ed.; Jewish Publication Society, © 1945; pp 5-16