Saturday, December 27, 2008

Chanuka for the Perplexed

R' Sokol's drasha this week focused on Chanukah and the philosophical ideas that arise therefrom. He started from the end of the Rambam's laws of Chanukah, where he states that a) Chanukah is very dear to the Jews, b) that one must be very careful in fulfilling the mitzvot of Chanukah, and c) that one must sell the shirt off their back to obtain oil and lamps for Chanukah.

Now, this kind of zeal for a mitzvah is also apparent on certain mitzvot that indicate our love for God, notably tefillin, tzitzit and mezuzah. Using them, wearing them if appropriate, being careful to observe them properly, attach us to God. But these are all commands from the Torah, while Chanukah is a purely human, rabbinic holiday, in fact, about the only such that has remained on our calendar down to this day (other minor holidays mentioned in, e.g., the Fast Scroll, have fallen out of fashion as the events they commemorate have been forgotten). Why, then, is Chanukah so special?

Well, what is Chanukah? It commemorates a battle against Seleucid Greek-Syrians who wanted us to assimilate to their religion. The greatest powers in the Greek system are the Fates, the one who spins the thread (birth), the one who measures the thread (lifetime), and the one who cuts the thread (death). They have powers even over the gods, such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite [of the see-through nightie], etc. Belief in the Greek system led to Fatalism, the idea that nothing we did could possibly influence Fate, the path of our own lives. The gods (at least the Fates with real power) were totally uninterested in us.

Various philosophers developed sophisticated philosophical and theological systems based on this idea. One of them was Aristotle, who posited an eternal, unchanging universe governed purely by natural law. God was pure intellect, whose thoughts were the natural laws. Since everything in the universe was created from a substratum, some predecessor thing, matter must be eternal, because the idea of something coming from nothing is nonsensical (for him). God has no will, because he is pure intellect. Since the Universe is unchanging and God is not affectable, everything is just governed by fate, by the interaction of phyiscal particles and energies. This view is accepted today by many scientists who reject religion.

Maimonides refuted this, by positing that the induction of "everything coming from something else" was itself not provable, and that it made as much sense to say that there is a First Cause which is the initiator of the Universe. God has a Will, which He exerted to create the Universe, and which we can affect by our actions and prayers. In fact, in the Guide for the Perplexed II:25, he discusses the refutation of the eternity of the universe, and posits that if Aristotle's idea were provable, the Torah would have to be interpreted allegorically in many places. Thank God that God exists and this is not necessary.

So here, Chanukah, for Maimonides, was the triumph of Judaism over fatalism, God over Aristotle. In Judaism, God does listen to our prayers, accept our teshuvah, rules over the world with reward and punishment, and will send a Final Redeemer bb"a. God cares.

Now, Maimonides did go through various periods of more or less wealth, especially after his brother was lost at sea, the brother who had been supporting him in an Issachar-Zevulun relationship. He seems always to have been able to provide for himself and his family. But there is little doubt, that had it become necessary, he would have sold the shirt off his own back to be able to celebrate Chanukah, the triumph of Torah over Fatalism.

delivered Parshat Vayeshev, 5769, yavneh minyan of flatbush

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