The most famous Jewish restaurant in New York throughout the 20th century was Schmulka Bernstein’s in the East Side of Manhattan, near Chinatown. The cuisine was Eastern European but the waiters were always Chinese. This gave rise to a popular joke about the man visiting New York who drops in to eat at Bernstein’s and is impressed by how well the waiter speaks Yiddish. He calls the manager over to compliment him on this phenomenon.
“Shhh,” whispers the manager. “Don’t let him hear you. He thinks we’re teaching him English.”
As it turns out, this is a perfect parable for Hanukah observance. Of all Jewish holidays, this is the most successful. Even Jews whose identification with their brethren is determinedly cultural rather than religious are happy to participate. A convivium, some candles, a game with a little top that you can play for money, what’s not to like? Except for one thing. The festivities were instituted to instill confidence that religious thinking will ultimately vanquish secular thinking. Lots of these folks are unwittingly partying it up at the prospect of the demise of their worldview.
The conceptual basis of Hanukah is simple enough: The Greeks were the first nation to wage war not so much against Jews as against Judaism. They sent an occupying force to Israel and enlisted Jewish collaborators known as Hellenists. Their primary goal, as the liturgy expresses, was “to make them forget Your Torah.” It was a war against the Bible, and it was founded in the Greek worldview of scientific secularism. Sadly, it was mostly successful. Although the Talmud never overtly admits this, most independent historical sources indicate that this campaign succeeded in seducing the vast majority.
The small group of guerrilla fighters known as the Maccabees are celebrated for their brilliant military campaign, overcoming great odds. But perhaps more challenging was winning the population back to their national patrimony. Indeed, tradition has it that only one flask of sanctified oil survived the Greek occupation of the Temple. An amount ordinarily sufficient to burn one day, it miraculously lasted for eight full days. Light is used as a symbol for intellect in Judaism, because it illuminates where there is doubt. Thus, the candles represent the ability of the Bible to be restored to prominence as long as a small loyal group safeguards it in time of crisis.
This is not viewed as a completed victory. In fact, even the military battle against the Greeks continued for many years after the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple. Eventually, every one of the major Maccabee leaders was killed in battle. Still, once they turned the corner, they were confident of ultimate triumph. The legendary Maharal (an acronym for Rabbi Judah Loew) of Prague (1512-1609) explains that Hanukah occurs in conjunction with the winter solstice, when light is least in the world…and then begins to gradually, inevitably increase.
Take that model and apply it to subsequent history. You will see that it fits again and again, a blueprint that guarantees eventual vanquishment.
It’s 2300 years later and the Bible is stronger than ever. It sometimes experiences low ebbs, when new assaults are leveled. Yet it always bounces back, because the few serve as guardians of the light. Think of the campaign of the last century and a half to use science as a bludgeon against religion. How well is that working out for them? They sometimes get the illusion of having majorities, but in the end the world’s only superpower is a country where 90 percent believe in the Bible in one form or another.
Interestingly, the existence of Christianity was made possible by Hanukah. Had the Jews blinked, had the Bible been discarded and converted into a museum piece, it would not have been accessible to Jews during the Roman Era or to the Romans themselves. There can be no greater irony than the fact that the annoying little Bible of one small nation not only stood up to the Greco-Roman Empire, it ultimately conquered its oppressors by converting them to a Bible-based worldview.
Still, the opposition never gives up. They’re always out there, trying to dominate the intelligentsia, academia, the media, everything that ends with an A. However small they shrink our zone of influence, their darkness cannot prevail. When the dust settles, it turns out that Bible-toters produce most of the A-quality literature and art, bringing true light into every corner of existence. That candle shines into the heart of all humanity, into the soul of all being.
So let’s welcome everyone to the party. Even those who don’t get it just yet. This program works in individual lives as well: sometimes the Greeks in your head dominate, but the candle is always there in the background, flickering but ready to be fanned into flame.