Seeing the Light: A Philosophy of Chanukah

The Chanukah story presents ‘light’ as triumph amidst a world of darkness. We are reminded, through the Mitzvot of Chanukah, of survival against all odds and of the possibility for good in an evil world. I will explore the connection between the defeat of the Greeks, and its connection to light through the philosophical commentary of Harav ‘Shagar’ (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg 1950-2007). Harav Shagar was a unique Orthodox Jewish thinker, who engaged deeply with religious life in a postmodern cultural setting through Kabbalah and Hasidut. For our purposes, we will consider his original development of the Jewish metaphor of light, through the festival of Chanukah.

It is no coincidence that the defeat of the Greeks is innately connected to our festival of light. The Greeks excelled at creating metaphors of light. Plato presented us with one of the most famous metaphors of life, in which he taught that all we can ever know about the world is a reflection of reality.

In the parable of ‘Plato’s Cave’, a group of people are trapped inside a cave with only a blank wall in front of them. Behind the wall is a fire. The people inside the cave watch as shadows are projected of people passing before them. Shadows are projected, through use of the light of the fire, onto the wall of the cave. The people trapped in the cave begin to familiarize themselves with what they can see, and suggest explanations. Shadows against a blaze of light are their source for understanding what is out there. Light is the basis for knowledge, but is limited in its reach.

Centuries later, Aristotle taught us that light represents the human intellect as all important. It must be continually supplemented and improved in order to achieve an enlightened state of wisdom.

What Do We Learn From the Jewish Defeat of Greek Philosophy?

So, what are we meant to understand by a Jewish defeat of this Greek philosophy? Are we meant to disregard Greek wisdom to reach a Jewish understanding of the world? Have our Jewish philosophers over the centuries not embedded these theories in their thinking, which has permeated Jewish thought for centuries? Does the Jewish mystical literature not centre itself around the divine sparks of light? How is light understood in Judaism differently to that of Greek sophistry? Light is a fundamental concept in Jewish philosophy, and so too are the metaphors through which it is conveyed.

Light shining from a bookIn a recently published collection of Harav Shagar’s essays which relate to Chanukah (‘LeHa’ir Et Haptachim’), he weaves the meaning of metaphors into the role of light on Chanukah. In one of the most striking essays, (‘BePetach leAkademia’ ) he responds to the question above – of the rejection of Greek philosophy through the Chanukah story. Harav Shagar critiques the Greeks’ creation of academia, preserved through the ‘university’ to this day.

Academics, he argued, study philosophy and ethics – of the soul and the world – from the outside. They purport to provide external, objective standpoints on any given subject. Shagar, arguing that objectivity is an illusion, emphasised that one has to be on the inside to explore the soul and its role in our world.

Therefore, the primacy of the ‘objective’ intellect in Greek thought – the Sophists and Hellenists – is farcical. The Jewish triumph over the Greeks in the Chanukah story demonstrates a rejection of having to step outside one’s world to describe it. Truly, to experience Jewish faith one must be completely on the ‘inside’, immersed in Torah and Mitzvot. There is no ‘outside’ critique of this; its worth is through the innate and deep involvement in religion. One must be totally engrossed in Torah in order to fully be a part of Jewish experience.

Greek philosophy, he claimed, removes us from the pure religious experience inherent in the Jewish tradition, amidst a total immersion in the Torah world. Greek thought emphasizes the static; the objective; which is the opposite of experience. It does not accept that learning is a process. It cannot express from an outside viewpoint, the yearning for holy transcendence in our lives. The wisdom of the Greeks – “Chochmat Yavan” – has its place, but works against the religious spirit. It must be limited in its influence on Jewish values and experience. The role of the internal Jewish experience is demonstrated by Harav Shagar through a renewal of the role of the Jewish, and therefore not the Greek, metaphor of light.

Seeing the Light

The use of light as metaphor is a theme that is woven throughout Harav Shagar’s treatment of Chanukah. He contemplates the symbolism of lighting Shabbat and Chanukah candles: light is used as a metaphor for understanding, transcendence, visibility, wisdom. Light reminds us of its source. Light inspires delight.

Yet whilst light is so exciting it can also be dangerous – an excess of light can cause fire, burning, and overheating. Light is not, in its essence, ‘good’. Light can illuminate, and provide understanding in a world of chaos. Yet its blaze can blind us with ignorance. Its beam can become a standard state of affairs that it may not be considered illuminating at all; it cannot be assumed that one who is accustomed to living in a state of darkness will perceive the advantage whatsoever in light. On the contrary, they can live without it, and it could even be possible that light will frighten them.

Nevertheless, for one who is accustomed to living in a state of light, light becomes a second nature, and they already recognise the necessity of its reality. Light can be the source for enlightened thinking, but it can also be unwanted. Sometimes ‘outside’ knowledge can present a challenge to religious beliefs.

Sometimes it is easier to remain inside the cave, with only projections of light, rather than facing the plethora of challenges to our tradition. The caution of light is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Icarus. Daedalus crafted for his son, Icarus, wings of feathers and wax, and instructed him to fly neither too close to the sea, nor too close to the sun. In his overt ambitiousness, Icarus ignored the instructions and flew too close to the sun. His wings melted and caused his downfall.

Bruegel ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ 1558

Contrary to the sun as the singular source for knowledge, Harav Shagar emphasizes that light is a kinetic force that accompanies us on our path to understanding. ‘Sparks of light’ – the Kabbalistic ‘nitzotzot’ – provide continual glimpses of meaning in the world along our way. Making sense of our world is at the heart of human existence. We aspire to understand the world we inhabit. This process is accompanied by these shards of light which guide us along our way.

In this vein, light must be limited. Understanding must necessarily be restrained. Chanukah teaches us humility; it teaches us patience; it teaches us discernment; it teaches us hope; and recognition of sparks of light. These sparks of light are foundational to the religious endeavour of obtaining fragments of understanding in a world of confusion.

The Metaphor of Light in Chanukah

The metaphor of light is a metaphor for life. Harav Shagar was interested in how light functions as a metaphor, in which Chanukah presents the pretext for the discussion; [t]he candle has its different manifestations through the metaphor of the candle, and also through the concept of the metaphor itself.

How can a metaphor truly refer to something beyond our world? What is the meaning of using metaphors, in Tefilla and Limmud? Metaphors, Harav Shagar contends, have tremendous power, as in Kabbalistic imagination. Metaphor is a powerful religious tool that serves to continually reaffirm our longing for understanding fragments of light. Metaphors activate the religious soul; there is an internal connection between light as it plays out in our lives and our behaviour, and between the understanding and wisdom in our spiritual and internal worlds; the fulfilment of the mitzvah of lighting candles, joins together both worlds in our very soul.

A metaphor works by describing a situation. Torah, Midrash, Aggadah and everyday Tefillot are replete with examples. We are presented with a situation which forces us to interpret it to refer to something else. We are invited to consider what it could mean; we are fascinated by how commentators have understood its meaning; we engage in our own interpretation of the metaphor. Metaphors imbue us with direction, hope and religious creativity, in our Tefilla and Limmud Torah. Through metaphor, we continually affirm and create meaning.

Spinning the ‘Sevivon’: Life’s Unexpected Miracles

The oil that lasted for eight days signifies the possibility of the impossible; the miracle inherent in apparent loss; the pleasures in everyday life. The Chanukah story is no less a metaphor for life than a metaphor for hope, and for possibility. Harav Shagar teaches us that we can only ever grasp the light through a miracle; herein lies the salvation of the astonishment of the miracle; the astonishment in itself, of the possibility of the breakage of the laws of nature, presents us with salvation, and release from the malaise and lack of faith in the dire straits of this world.

The miracle of the Chanukah story welcomes the astonishment and celebrates the element of joy in the unknown. It accentuates the possibility of miracles when we least expect them. This message is signified through practical expressions of the miracle.

The commandment of ‘Pirsumei Nissa’/ ’publicising the miracle’ requires us to place the Chanukia at the front of the house. This act of publicity symbolizes ‘Lehavdil ben Kodesh LeChol, ben Or LeChoshech’/ ‘Distinguishing between the Holy and the Profane, between Light and Dark’. The Chanukia serves as the source of illumination and warmth in the cold and dark outside. It projects light into a dark world. It demonstrates the possibility for salvation even though it
seems impossible.

chanukah family cartoonHarav Shagar then draws our attention to the joy, excitement and laughter of children on Chanukah. Laughter characterises the element of surprise in a miracle; the role of laughter can be likened to a spin of the Sevivon (Dreidel). The amusement in the game of spinning the Sevivon is based on the element of surprise as the Sevivon lands on one side. Its spells a particular fate. Thus, spinning the Sevivon is ultimately a gamble. We ponder what could be – we calculate the probability of our fortune. Behind the laughter and play lies the hope for a miracle.

The miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, even though there was enough for only one day, suggests the possibility of the impossible against all odds. The most famous example that we are taught, is that of Sarah Imenu, our ancestress.

Upon hearing of her conception after years of infertility, her first reaction was to laugh in utter surprise, which is reflected through her naming of her son Yitzchak – meaning laughter. This is the most profound response to a miracle against all odds. Similarly, the game of the Sevivon, spelling surprise, laughter and miracle, presents the most powerful expression of the message of Chanukah.

Where the Sevivon lands is not accidental. The ending of the Chanukah story is intentional. Life may often seem to be a series of chance coincidences, but there is an intentionality in what befalls us, as Chanukah teaches us. Much in this world in beyond our control. Accidents happen. The unexpected shocks us; everything that is truly experienced is actually a medium [for something greater], it is a game of dress-up: this is the way of understanding the events that occur in a person’s life.

Like with the metaphor, layers of meaning must be torn away to reveal a true message. The entire metaphor of Chanukah, teaches us to recognise the possibility of miracles and the importance of Emunah. Each spark of understanding, of belief, each glimmer of hope, represents a light in our lives, a light in each day and in each action. This is fundamentally different from the light of the Greeks.

We are meant to immerse ourselves in our tradition and communities on Chanukah. We take part in the game of life in the most profound way in our very own homes. Through an intentional play on words – ‘Or’ (meaning ‘light’) and ‘Ore’ach’ (meaning ‘guest’), Harav Shagar points to the importance of family and hospitality as incubator of these values. The light (Or) illuminates its surroundings – the home. The holiness discussed here is homely. The light belongs at home, and is meant for the home. Like a wonderful meal, overflowing with goodness and kindness for the guests (Ore’ach).

Attention to the values and atmosphere we create, as individuals, precisely in dealing with the unexpected, the external, conflict and darkness, brings home the message of Chanukah. The mitzvot of Chanukah are enjoyable, and are ends in and of themselves and signify values beyond themselves. In addition, their metaphorical value is designed to compel us towards the message of Chanukah.

This meaning of Chanukah manifests itself in the place closest to us – our homes – pointing to the light and laughter – cleaving to the possibility of miracles. Chanukah represents the brightest unfathomable light.

For Harav Shagar, this is the source of the triumph over evil; of understanding over confusion; of experience over stasis: the internal over the external, and through the mitzvot, the capacity to bring these values home.

Rrabbanit Miriam Feldmann Kaye
Rabbanit Dr. Miriam Feldmann Kaye, a member of Beit Hillel, is a lecturer in the Departments of Jewish Thought and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University and the founding director of the Faiths Forum, Israel. She is author of the forthcoming book ‘Jewish Theology in a Postmodern Age’ (Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation).

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