Chanukah is one of the most observed of all the Jewish festivals—everyone enjoys lighting pretty menorahs and eating lots of doughnuts! But beneath the enjoyable remembrance of how the Chashmonaim defeated the powerful Greek army lies a fundamental ideological battle, one that still rages today.
The Jewish and Greek ideologies represent opposing attitudes toward the purpose of life. There is a midrash in which a Roman leader asks Rabbi Akiva whose creation is greater, that of Hashem or that of man. Rabbi Akiva surprisingly answers that man’s creation is greater. For Hashem produces inedible produce such as a kernel of wheat, which serves of no benefit, whereas man takes this kernel and, through much toil, makes it into bread.
The midrash tells us that Rabbi Akiva knew that the Roman expected him to say Hashem’s creation was greater, whereupon the Roman would have asked why man performs bris milah, cutting away part of the body as if to improve on Hashem’s creation. Rabbi Akiva therefore avoided this question by stating that man’s creation is indeed greater. How can we understand this midrash? Surely Hashem’s creation is infinitely greater than man’s.
There was a deeper disagreement underlying this discussion. The Roman represented the Greco-Roman emphasis on the perfection of man. The Greeks idolized the human body and intellect; man was naturally perfect, they thought, and the Romans represented a continuation of that ideology.
Consequently, the Jewish practice of bris milah was particularly abhorrent to them; it represented taking something perfect and damaging it. Rabbi Akiva represented the Torah belief that Hashem deliberately created the world in an imperfect fashion, so man could perfect it himself. That is why Hashem creates a useless kernel of wheat: Of course, Hashem is infinitely greater than mankind, but He wants man to go through the process of turning this wheat into something greater. This too is the symbolism of bris milah: Man is not born perfect. He has much work to do, in particular to harness and control all his powerful drives and use them for growth or other improvement. Life is one big opportunity to elevate all of one’s natural drives.
Given all this, it should be of little surprise that one of the mitzvos the Greeks outlawed was bris milah. They sought to uproot the idea that man is not made perfect, that life is about developing oneself, striving to remove negative traits and improve positive ones. The Jews fought this prohibition with all their might and eventually overcame the Greeks. So too, we have outlived the Romans and all the philosophies that espouse the natural perfection of mankind.
However, the battle continues. Today we live in a society that places little or no emphasis on improving one’s character; instead it focuses on physical pleasure. Yet we know that the only true satisfaction derives from growing, from becoming a kinder, more spiritual person, a more thoughtful spouse, a more attentive parent, and, most important, a better servant of Hashem.
From the book “A Light in Time”