Chanuka on our Philadelphia Street

Nov 24, 2014

Rebbetzin Ruthie Karlinsky

As a child growing up in Philadelphia, I remember well the long bus ride home from school in the dark December evenings. As we passed from one Catholic neighborhood through another, we would marvel at the array of gaudy holiday decorations, blinking lights, tinsel balls and life size reindeer. The amount of electricity used could have provided power to a third world country.

For a Jewish kid, the world outside was overwhelming. It challenged and tested our Jewish pride. When we stood around our Chanukah menora, first lighting one candle, two, three. it was a declaration of faith that a “little light can chase away a lot of darkness”. The small wicks drawing from the golden olive oil created lights that were far brighter and stronger than the flashing decorations on the neighbor’s lawn.

The story of Chanukah, the whole concept of the Greek culture versus the Jewish culture was played out on our Philadelphia street.

What exactly happened in the times of the Chashmoanim?

There were three major decrees that the Greeks made against the Jews: forbidding the observance of Brit Milah, Shabbat, and Kiddush Hachodesh – the sanctification of the new moon upon which all the Jewish holidays are based. Of all the 613 mitzvot, why did the Greeks single out these three? In addition to these three, the Greeks also prohibited the Jews from studying the Oral Law – the Torah She’baal Peh, while at the same time the Written Torah was appreciated by the Greeks. They had it translated into Greek, for they viewed it as valuable wisdom, which they also wished to acquire. Why?

The Greeks believed in nature. They worshipped nature. They worshipped and believed in externals: strength, the physical body, beautiful buildings and architecture, majority subjugates the minority, etc. Man must operate within the laws of nature, try to dominate nature, and, when necessary, pay the required homage to the gods of nature. The Greeks felt that it is what is outside that counts. There is no reality beyond that which man understands.

Of the three sons of Noach, the forefathers of the world’s cultures, Yefet was the ancestor of Greece. Yefet derives from the word ‘yofi’ – beauty. And it was external beauty that the Greeks admired and worshipped. Our ancestor was Shem, which in Hebrew means “name.” In Chazal, the shem, the name, represents what is inside, the essence of a person, the internal aspect, the ‘pnimiut’.

Now we can start to understand the radical conflict between the Greeks and the Jews: Pnimiut or chitzoniut? The outer surface of life, or its inside dimension? This conflict obviously affects how to view nature. But it also relates to Torah, which has an external dimension – Torah Shebichtav – the external representation of the Torah, as well as an inner dimension and meaning. The Bible is accessible to all the nations. It is not uniquely reserved for the Jewish nation. After all, the Bible is the best seller the world over. What makes the Torah uniquely belong to the Jews? Torah She’baal Peh – the oral law that contains the inner dimension of Torah. The written law, the external Torah, without the inner dimension of the Oral Law, has little impact on a person’s moral behavior. That is the Torah that the Greeks believed in, wisdom with no internal effect. The Jews with their inner wisdom proved to be a threat to the Greeks, who therefore wanted to eradicate the Oral Law.

So, too, with Shabbat, Kiddush Hachodesh, and Brit Milah – if, as the Greeks believed, nature is an absolute, then the world is propelled by fixed forces and G-d has no input in the universe. We, on the other hand, believe that there is an ongoing relationship between G-d and man, and that the laws of nature are related to a spiritual reality. Shabbat testifies to this unique ongoing relationship between man and G-d. Kiddush Hachodesh involves man’s influence over the spiritual dimension of time. Brit Milah represents man’s ability to transcend his natural lusts and instincts and to control and elevate them. There is more to the physical body than what is apparent. There is a ‘pnimiut’ to the external shell.

Before the Greeks, the unity of the physical and the metaphysical was obvious to the Jews – there was no dichotomy. The Jews knew that the laws of nature were influenced by moral behavior. When there was no rain, it meant that there was moral corruption. It was the Greeks who introduced a dichotomy between the supernatural and the natural worlds. So when the Jews came to the Beit Hamikdash on Chanukah, it was crucial that they rededicate and redefine the concept of ‘pnimiut’ without which the externals are meaningless.

Today, I walk the streets of Yerushalaim, and thousands of Chanukah lights wink to me from every window and ledge, from little glass boxes standing outside in front of doorways, in Geula alleys and also from Beit Hakerem porches. These lights still challenge the outside, the externals. It is up to us to preserve and cherish the pnimiut.

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