Hanukkah is a great time to discuss hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure as a matter of ethical principle, which the Hellenists nurtured so enthusiastically. I would like to present an idea that may sound novel to many of you, but is actually at the basis of Jewish thought.
On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy. In fact, our very nature is that of a desire to receive pleasure. The Greeks knew how to make the most of human nature. They were masters at cultivating culture, sports, science, and architecture all to our amusement.
Opposite them were the Maccabees. They maintained a very different approach—that human nature is rotten to the core, as it is written, “The inclination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth,” and “Sin crouches at the [womb’s] door.”
To be sure, the Maccabees (or Jews who didn’t subscribe to Hellenism), did not object to cultivating culture, science, or technology. It is more that they objected to the self-centered implementation of our skills and talents, to the glorification of the self rather than of the common good. This is why the Greeks admired winners and adored competition.
The Jews, on the other hand, cultivated “love your neighbor as yourself” as their ideal. Granted, the implementation of the ideal was not as ideal as the notion itself, but that, in general, was the goal toward which they aspired.
It was not as though the Maccabees were ascetics. They, too, aspired for the ultimate happiness. The difference between them and the Greeks was that they knew that true happiness exists when there is mutual camaraderie and social cohesion, when you identify yourself as part of a bigger whole, because then you expand your perception in direct proportion to the size of the community. The self can only enjoy so much. But a self that experiences itself as part of a whole enjoys both the fulfillment of personal skills, the contribution of those skills to the society, and also enjoys the contribution of all the other members of society.
In addition, just as the cells in our body sustain themselves, but work to the benefit of the entire body, as though they are (and perhaps they really are) perceiving the entire body, the goal of the Maccabees was to bequeath that expansive perception to each of them. Naturally, the self-centered, hedonistic approach contradicted it, so the two approaches to life could not coexist.
Looking at today’s world, it appears that the Greeks have won the battle by a knockout. Wherever you look, self-indulgence prevails. Competition thrives, and people cannot even conceive a society that doesn’t cultivate competitiveness. Alas, the Greeks’ victory is rather a Pyrrhic one. In the most competitive societies, depression is rampant, as are extremism of all sorts, and comprehensive social decadence. Competition has led to isolation, alienation, loneliness, depression, and radical views of all kinds.
So now we must turn back to the Maccabees’ ideals of camaraderie, but most importantly, social cohesion. Or in simpler words, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
So once again, all eyes are turning to the Jews. And once again, the world, which has become all but completely hedonistic, especially in the West, is turning against us. Anti-Semites feel that something about us is noxious, but can’t quite pinpoint it, so they blame it on the existence of the state of Israel, or the existence of the Jewish people as a whole. But deep down, they’re sensing that we’re putting off a job we should be doing.
And they are right. We are procrastinating the implementation of our task, to be “a light unto the nations.” That light is the light of unity, as this is the only remedy to today’s multifaceted crisis.
When there is a crisis in human nature, it manifests in everything. Since human nature affects everything in our lives, every area of human engagement is either in crisis, or well under way toward it. Now is the time to say “Enough!” let’s try something really different. Let’s try to work together! Truly together!
We needn’t relinquish who we are, or what we’ve gained in science, technology, and culture. All we need is to use them differently. We need to create an environment of giving. Even the richest person cannot feel safe in today’s world. But in a society where people care for one another, even the poorest, weakest person can feel perfectly safe and happy.
Only we, Jews, have the key to such a kind of unity, because only we had ever experienced it. Way back, in the days of the Maccabees and before the ruin of the Temple, this is how we lived. We were a society based on mutual guarantee that was formed at the foot of Mount Sinai, and that mutual guarantee was reinforced after each feud. Now it is time to rekindle it and share it with the world. This is what the world needs, and like it or not, the world will not get it from anywhere else until we reawaken it and pass it on. This is what it means to be “a light for the nations,” and no time is better to start than the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah.
Happy Festival of Lights to all