I don’t understand what we are supposed to be celebrating on Chanukah. The Greeks brought culture, rationalism, geometry, drama, appreciation of beauty, and most of all, a promise of universalism to the Mediterranean. The Jewish Maccabee resistance fought for old-time religion, senseless rituals such as circumcision, kosher taboos and sacrificial orders. Where others gladly abandoned their tribalism for the universalist spirit of the day, these retrogrades insisted on their divisive national identity and cultic rites.

In our modern times, when those Hellenist ideals have flowered and flourished in the form of science and globalism, what point is there in celebrating the victory of those who resisted progress into the future?


Let’s start with a few facts. While it’s true that Alexander brought an era of true progress and prosperity to the ancient world, those values weren’t necessarily Greek values. Consider this speech which legend attributes to him—a speech no Greek could have imagined:

. . . I wish all of you, now that the wars are coming to an end, to live happily in peace. All mortals from now on shall live like one people, united and peacefully working forwards a common prosperity. You should regard the whole world as your country—a country where the best govern, with common laws and no racial distinctions. I do not separate people, as many narrow-minded others do, into Greeks and barbarians.

I’m not interested in the origin or race of citizens. I distinguish them only on the basis of their virtue. For me, each good foreigner is a Greek, and each bad Greek is a barbarian. If ever there appear differences among you, you must not resolve them by taking to arms; you should resolve them in peace. If need be, I shall act as your negotiator. You must not think of G‑d as an authoritarian ruler, but you should consider Him as common father, so that your conduct will resemble the uniform behavior of brothers who belong to the same family. For my part, I consider all—whether they be white or black—equal, and I would like you to be not only the subjects of my commonwealth, but also participants and partners. Within my powers, I shall endeavor to fulfill all my promises. You should regard the oath we have taken tonight as a symbol of love . . .1

To the Greeks, anyone who was not a member of a small group of tribes on the tip of the Aegean peninsula was a barbarian and of inferior stock, worthy only to be a slave. And that included Macedonians such as Alexander. Amongst Athenians, only one who owned land and was born of an Athenian father and mother could be considered a citizen. Even craftsmen and entrepreneurs were considered inferior sorts for men, unworthy of citizenship.

True, Alexander was trained by a Greek teacher, none other than Aristotle. Yet, in his biography of Alexander, Peter Green writes:

Aristotle and Alexander maintained a close relationship while student and teacher. Surprisingly, in later years, Aristotle’s and Alexander’s relationship deteriorated because of their opposing views on foreigners. Aristotle regarded foreigners as barbarians, while Alexander did not mind intermixing cultures.2

Alexander and the Hellenistic dream of universal peace was, then, not so much Greek, but much closer to an earlier orator of a much different era, the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of the ultimate Jewish emperor:

He shall judge between the nations and reprove many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.3

Such progressive universalists were the ancient Jews that they alone among the nations fostered a concept not only of universal peace, but of universal law. The code is often called the seven laws of Noah, although it entails far more than seven prohibitions. Adin Steinsaltz, in a widely discussed essay, describes the Noahide approach as “a formula for no more than peace,” providing “a basis for conversation among religions without the expectation of compromise between or reconciliation of claims.”4

All this makes it even more surprising that it was the Jews, far more than any other people, who rebelled against and undermined Alexander’s dream. And to celebrate that, yet?

The key, I believe, was best stated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference. In the chapter “Exorcising Plato’s Ghost,” he describes the flip side of universalism: the obliteration of diversity, the loss of individuality, and the breeding of anomie in the place of community.

The two examples of progress that you cite, science and globalism, are poignant in this regard. The benefits of science and technology are precious to us all, but after the horrors of the 20th century, none of us can ignore its pernicious tendency to dehumanize and devalue human life. Ironically, as science progresses, it becomes better equipped to justify a purely utilitarian world, where humans are reduced to just another utility.

As for globalism—yes, it has defeated the worst of poverty in many parts of the world; brought greater resilience to our economy (so they say); and it’s nice to have avocados, kiwis and passion fruit at any season of the year—but look at what this has done to cultural diversity. In his time, Alexander offered Greek statues and temples for all; today we offer Superman, Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s. With both peace offerings, the same caveat applies: Acceptance of our culture implies abandonment of your own. Whether you are Japanese, Swahili, Inuit or Patagonian, this will be the new pseudo-culture of your children, and your own will be lost. You pay for peace with your own soul.

Oh so poignant are the words of Chief Dan George, of the Suquamish tribe in the Pacific Northwest:

I wanted to give something of my past to my grandson. So I took him into the woods, to a quiet spot . . .

I sang.

In my voice was the hope that clings to every heartbeat.

I sang.

In my words were the powers I inherited from my forefathers.

I sang.

In my cupped hands lay a spruce seed—the link to creation.

I sang.

In my eyes sparkled love.

I sang.

And the song floated on the sun’s rays from tree to tree.

When I had ended, it was if the whole world listened with us to hear the wolf’s reply. We waited a long time but none came.

Again I sang, humbly but as invitingly as I could, until my throat ached and my voice gave out. All of a sudden I realized why no wolves had heard my sacred song. There were none left! My heart filled with tears. I could no longer give my grandson faith in the past, our past.

At last I could whisper to him: “It is finished!”

“Can I go home now?” he asked, checking his watch to see if he would still be in time to catch his favorite program on TV.

I watched him disappear and wept in silence. All is finished!5

So, it is all finished. Who cares? What difference will it make? Humanity can survive without the Squamish legends and myths.

True, we can survive. But in what way will we be human?

As Rabbi Sacks asks, is a human an abstract ideal, a cookie-cutter form, a way in which we are all the same, live the same, celebrate the same, want the same and die the same? Or is a human defined by his unpredictability, his unique sense of “I,” a creature of destiny and purpose that no other being in the universe shares, whose pleasure and pain, sadness and joy describe one individual’s experience of life and one alone?

That is where things went haywire between the Hellenists and the Maccabees: Not over culture and art, geometry and literacy—those we embraced and even preserved, just as we welcomed the promise of peace between nations. It was the caveat that we were not willing to swallow. Our temple was to remain a Jewish temple, our homes Jewish homes, and our Torah a Jewish Torah. The Greeks, and those Jews who mimicked them, saw that as a stubborn impediment to progress. They saw the recalcitrants as shortsighted retrogrades. But the truth is that Jewish wisdom sees much further. The future is not a soliloquy, but a symphony. Peace is not uniformity, but a rich orchestra of many instruments.6

The Jewish people have made many valuable contributions to humankind, but this is one of their most vital: That it is okay to be different, to cherish your identity, even to die for it—because in truth that is all you have. It is all you have, because without it you are redundant: you may as well have never been born. On Chanukah we wish to share that with all other peoples, to show them that even as the majority culture swamps your life with its commercially hyped symbology, narratives and melodies, you can still bear proudly the traditions of your own proud heritage and know who you are. And so we celebrate that victory, the victory of the survival of the unique, the personal and the human within the vast melting pot of globalism.

Look at this miracle: An anomaly among the nations, as time progressed we became not less tribal, but more so. Like an ingot of iron in the crucible of history, our identity became yet more indestructible, yet more timeless and eternal. Timeless, because we belong to modernity as much as we belong to our ancient roots; eternal, because in essence we do not change. Why? Because we were born as a people not out of geography or circumstance, but out of a mission, and that sense of purpose has kept us always alive and unique. And so it should be with every human being: Let his or her unique mission—not that of the sitcom stars, not that dictated by social norms, not that demanded by conformity to modern, Western standards—but the role that distinguishes this one person from every other creature in the universe, let that vitalize all that he or she does.

Earlier I compared the universal law for all people, the laws of Noah, to Alexander’s promise of peace between nations. The distinction, however, is crucial: Alexander asked that “your conduct will resemble the uniform behavior of brothers who belong to the same family.” We would rather have each of those brothers and sisters express his or her uniqueness within that one large family. The minimalism of the laws of Noah serves as a guideline not for conformity, but for harmony of diverse parts.

Perhaps this is what guided Micah, a later prophet, to reiterate the words of Isaiah, yet with an embellished encore, one that speaks to the individual as well as the whole:

He shall judge between many peoples and reprove mighty nations far-off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.

They shall dwell each man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them move, for the mouth of the L‑rd of Hosts has spoken.7

Recently I gave an impromptu talk on this topic, which someone recorded. You can listen to the recording at this link. Another article to read is Why Couldn’t the Jews and Greeks Just Get Along?

May the lights of Chanukah transform the darkness to light, so that we may truly progress into a future in which every human being is valued, and war is unthinkable.