As we celebrate Chanukah I would like to share some words of my old mashgiach, and elaborate on what he meant. He used to ask us to think about which side of the fight we really would have been on: the side of the Chashmonaim, or the side of the Yevanim?
To understand this question of his, we need to first make clear the historical background of the Chanukah story. For years the Jews suffered not only from the continuous conquering by the Seleucids and Ptolemy dynasties (which led to many deaths, slaves, and captives), but from an internal struggle as well. This struggle was between those who were loyal to the Jewish faith, and those who were not, referred to as the “Misyavnim”. These renegade Jews were in fact the ones who encouraged Antiochus to enact his decrees against the Jews in the first place.1 Indeed, after the victory over Antiochus, the faithful Jews, led by the Chashmonaim, went about “cleansing” the nation, killing the treacherous Misyavnim.
But who were these Misyavnim? The most simple translation would render the word as “Hellenists.” The definition of a Hellenist is either “a person, especially in ancient times, adopting Greek speech, ideas, or customs” or “a person who admires or studies Greek civilization.” While we perhaps do not have many Jews today who seek to be Hellenists in the classic sense, we do, unfortunately, often suffer as a community from a similar malady. Those of us who admire the secular world — it’s culture, morals, knowledge, and “all that it has to offer” — are essentially today’s Hellenists. The Chashmonaim fought against the intrusion of secular culture into the Jewish nation, giving up their lives in order to maintain the sanctity of the Jewish people. When we celebrate Chanukah, we are celebrating the victory of the Torah over Greek culture. We celebrate the attempt to make the Jewish nation a pure Torah nation.
Thus, my mashgiach asked us: how many of us admire the secular world, their morals, culture, sports, and so on? How many of us barely take notice of the Torah and desire to learn it and know and absorb a Torah outlook on life and the world?
This is not to say that one may not go to university, since many, if not most people, need an education in order to find a job that pays enough to live on. Indeed, learning some secular studies will even help one to understand the Torah better. However, one should never think that his or her culture derives from university and the secular world. Our knowledge and culture is the Torah.
As we get ready to celebrate Chanukah, we should all stop and think: On whose side would we really have been on? Are we part of today’s Hellenists? Do we have a Torah outlook, or do we look at the world and our lives through a secular prism, and perhaps even try and twist the Torah to fit? What would the Chashmonaim think of us?
1. I am sorry to say that we still find Jews willing to unnecessarily inform on other Jews.↩