Rabbi Ilan Goldman
Former Rav-Shaliach, Bnei Akiva England
Currently Executive Director of Project Aseret
Chanuka – The beginning of a new Judaism
Prophecy – experiential Judaism
There is a fascinating story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b), of Rav Ashi, the Talmudic scholar who compiled the Babylonian Talmud. At the end of teaching one day, Rav Ashi told his students what they would be learning the next day. In a superciliousness manner he said that the following day they were going to learn about their three ‘friends’, referring to the three wicked kings of Israel. At night Manasseh appeared to Rav Ashi in a dream and challenged him with a halachick question to which Rav Ashi did not know the answer. Realizing that Menasseh was such a scholar Rav Ashi asked him how come he had fallen so low and worshiped idols. Menasseh could not explain it in a way that Rav Ashi would understand all he could say was that had he, Rav Ashi, lived in Menasseh’s time, he would not have merely worshiped idols, he would have run as fast as he could to do so.
Rav Ashi was not able to appreciate the temptation that Menasseh had, as the world had change since the days of the kings of Israel. As human beings we all have desires and lusts of many sorts. However, up until around 2500 years ago, the greatest desire a human had was to worship. This desire was so tremendous it caused the downfall of our people several times; it caused the sin of the golden calf, and was one of the main causes of the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile. Upon the return to Zion in the time of the Second Temple our sages mercilessly annulled the desire of worship (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 69b). It was just about then that prophecy ceased from existence too.
There is an incredibly important principle derived from the verse “God has made even the one as well as the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). In order for humanity to have the full ability to practice freedom of choice, the world was created in an even way. Any desire one has can be practiced within the realm of Judaism, halachah and morality, and may equally be drawn to and practiced outside of these areas. If there is an urge to worship, this desire may pull someone up to the greatest heights of prophecy and it may pull someone down to the deepest depths of idolatry. Once the desire was annulled – man may no longer fall to such depths but will not reach such heights either.
Wisdom – a new pillar of Judaism
Up until this point in history, the pillar of Judaism was an experiential one. A person would be elevated by visiting the Temple or by seeing and hearing the prophets. Now that there was no prophecy, due to the annulment of the desire to worship, there was a need to produce a new pillar for Judaism.
Indeed, soon after the annulment of the desire to worship, the development of wisdom emerges and humanity reaches tremendous heights. For the nations of the world it is expressed in the great Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It was now time for the Oral Torah, Judaism ‘counterpart’ to secular wisdom, to emerge. Up until this point we find that the Oral Torah was left almost ‘untouched’: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment, establish many pupils and make a safety fence around the Torah” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).
At the same time that the human mind was reaching the heights of philosophy – the Jewish mind was reaching heights within the wisdom of the Oral Torah. Up until this era the Oral Torah was passed down from generation to generation almost exactly as it was received at Sinai. However, from here on man has an active part in developing the Oral Torah and its wisdom. Our sages even favored wisdom over prophesy when they taught that “A wise man is even superior to a prophet” (Talmud Bavli, Baba Batra 12a)
The pillar of the Second Temple was that of wisdom. This is expressed in the Temple itself; The main vessel in the First Temple was of the Ark of the Covenant, which expresses the Written Torah (“The tablets were… placed lengthwise in the ark”. ibid 14a). The main vessel of the Second Temple was the Menorah (“R. Isaac said: He who desires to become wise should turn to the south… The symbol [by which to remember this] is that… the Menorah was to the south”. ibid 25b). In fact, the vision of Zechariah in which he prophesies about the Menorah (as the main vessel) was in the time of the Second Temple, and was referring specifically to the Menorah of the Chanukah story. Hence, the miracle of Chanukah had to be revealed through the Menorah, and it is the Menorah which was chosen as the symbol of Chanukah.
The transformation from the pillar of experiential Judaism to the pillar which is based on the wisdom of man reaches its peak in the time of the Chanukah story, when the wisdom of the Oral Torah was under threat but triumphed. For the first time in our history our enemies did not wish to kill us, but rather to kill our culture and our wisdom – the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah was a threat to the Greeks as it claimed that wisdom translates itself into action, and can be demanding of man both to be ethical and to practice practical mitzvot which don’t always make sense. The Greeks, however, were proud of the ability to be great philosophers on the one hand and yet not have any ethical and practical implications on the other.
“God has made even the one as well as the other” – the choice between the wisdom of the Torah and that of philosophy is ongoing. Though the Maccabees won the war and we celebrate the Chanukah victory, we nonetheless find ourselves often torn between the values of Torah and the values of the (decedents of philosophy) Western culture.
Survival – the next pillar of Judaism
Some 200 years after the Chanukah story the Second Temple was destroyed and the nation was exiled for almost 2000 years. The development of the wisdom of the Oral Torah was key for the survival of the nation in exile. The many decrees which the sages made were now to ensure that the people in exile do not integrate too much into the other nations. With the absence of the Temple and all the new decrees, the second pillar of Judaism created the third pillar – the pillar of survival. In many ways Judaism had to shut down and stop developing and blossoming. The religion became that of restriction and limitation and the life and spirit of our faith was almost in a comma. This was to last for almost 1800 years, which is an outstanding amount of time. However, survival Judaism cannot last forever. At some point there was a need for a renaissance.
Zionism – towards a renaissance of the next pillar of Judaism
“God has made even the one as well as the other” – as the nation approaches its final redemption, it begins to awaken. Many new movements were formed, such as Hasidism, Enlightenment and Reform, all seeking to refresh Judaism. The nation was ready to move on to a more meaningful Judaism, and was trying to pave its way to this end. They were on the verge of the return to Zion and upon the return to Zion, Judaism will once again be able to be far more meaningful, elevating and alive.
Zionism directed the awakening of the nation to return to the Land of Israel. Once in Israel a genuine renaissance has begun to take place. A new pillar of Judaism is emerging from the depth of the exile which is coming to an end. Jewish life, nationally and religiously has become far more meaningful. As we progress deeper and deeper into the stages of this final redemption we recognize this renaissance developing more and more. Gradually, as the nation returns to Israel – a genuine renaissance is taking place.