Chanukah – The Holiday of Judaism's Oral Law
Of all the holidays celebrated by the Jewish People over the millennia, the only one that is not mentioned in the Tanach [the Jewish Bible] is the holiday of Chanukah. While there are different books entitled The Maccabees which are connected to Chanukah, none are included in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, they are considered part of the Apocrypha and, as such, are not considered part of the Jewish canon.
The most significant early reference to Chanukah within Torah thought is, therefore, actually found in the Talmud (Shabbat 21a-24b). This fact, in itself, has led people to thus associate Chanukah with the Oral Law [Torah She’b’al Peh]. Truly, our only religious source for this holiday is the Oral Law. This fact has thus led people to simply refer to Chanukah as the holiday of Torah She’b’al Peh.
This designation based solely on the holiday first being mentioned in the Talmud would, however, be misleading. In many ways, the very story of Chanukah is specifically about the Oral Law. The battle between the Greeks and Jews was ultimately a battle of thought, a battle between Hellenism and Torah.
In a lecture I heard many years ago, when I was a student at Ner Israel Yeshiva in Toronto, Canada, the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg (who went on to become Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, Baltimore), pointed out that the Greeks really did not have a problem with the Jewish Bible, the Written Torah. In fact, the Greeks eventually wanted it translated into Greek, yielding the Septuagint.
Hellenism’s problem was with the Oral Law and the battle of Chanukah was fought, in many ways, to defend this value within Israel. Of course, the Greeks, in attempting to oppress the Jews, did also take issue with many observances mentioned in the Torah text but what was written in the text is not what really bothered them. It was how traditional Jews thought, and their perception of reality, that really bothered the Greeks. Hellenism saw reality as ultimately static - what is is what is.
The essence of Torah, however, is not simply that there is a Creator but that, because of this existence of not only a Creator but One Who also continuously governs the world, life is dynamic. Human beings are thus not called upon to simply respond to reality, but to affect it, to make it better.
The Torah mitzvah of milah [ritual circumcision], which the Greeks took specific issue with, articulates this idea. To the Hellenists, if nature created a male child with a foreskin, that, by definition, must be the perfect human form. Within the perspective of Torah, though, in that God commands us to perfect the human male form through an act of circumcision, we are further being informed that reality was created imperfect in order for humanity to perfect it. We are, as such, always to be thinking anew. This, in contrast to Hellenism, is the very message of the Oral Law.
Revelation within traditional Judaism – which consists of a Written section and a much vaster Oral section -- is not simply a Divine presentation of clear-cut answers and information. It is a presentation of evolving ideas, insights, systems and ideals in a manner which calls upon its recipients to think, contemplate and investigate in order to attempt to grasp its never-ending meaning – not just at the moment when it was given, but throughout the generations.
Unlike Hellenism which defined reality within human parameters, the Oral Law was an invitation to join God in the very formation of life’s possibilities. Such inventiveness was not, though, to be haphazard, allowing the Jewish People to arrive at any conclusion, but was to be attained through the proper application of the complex, intellectual guidelines shared with us through the Revelation at Sinai. The difference is: The Oral Law is to guide us on our path of what could be.
This very idea is actually found in the miracle of the Menorah. There was no way that enough oil for one day would last eight days. Yet, in their re-dedication of the Temple, the Jews said: “Let’s try and see what happens.”
The oil, as we all know, did last for eight days. Does this mean we should always strive for a miracle? Of course not. In fact, in our decisions, we are actually not to rely upon miracles – but we can always strive to say, as appropriate, "Let’s try and see what happens." The Revelation of the Oral Law is what teaches us this and this is what we really celebrate on Chanukah.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
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