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Our Commitment to Judaism

What is the most important idea in all of science? Which laws of chemistry and biology are major, and which are minor? Which laws of physics must always be followed, and which ones can we ignore if we just don’t like them or if we just don’t feel like following them today?

By middle school, certainly by high school, after we have studied a little sampling of various areas of science, we come to understand the notion of most important law, or major and minor laws of science is absurd. Each domain of science is a complete system. They are coordinated with each other. Together they explain how every part of the physical world operates. Every law is necessary for a full and true understanding of the physical world. If you leave out any law, you don’t have the correct understanding of how the universe works. True scholars of science don’t categorize their ideas as major or minor, must follow or optional. No law of science is insignificant or trivial.

Now go to Google. Search for the most meaningful Jewish holiday or the most celebrated Jewish holiday. Search also for major and minor festivals on the Jewish calendar. Whatever answer you find in your search, know that it is wrong. The notions of the most meaningful, the most celebrated, major, or minor are also absurdities to anyone knowledgeable of the system of Judaism. Judaism is a unified system both in its philosophy and practical structure. The legal or halakhic system is whole and complete. No part of it is trivial or insignificant. If it appears to be so, the fault lies in our lack of understanding.

Unfortunately, many if not most of our practicing co-religionists carry this false notion in their minds. How many times do we hear people explain something in Judaism by saying, “That is only a minor holiday,” or “That is only a rabbinic law. It isn’t so important; the Torah doesn’t say that.”

Chanukah is an example par excellence of this notion. Lighting the Chanukah menorah is probably the most widely practiced Jewish mitzvah, yet it is thought of as only a minor festival. True, no mention of Chanukah is found anywhere in the Torah or for that matter in any book of the Bible, including the Prophets and Writings. It is a rabbinic enactment created and formally instituted by our sages living in the time of the Maccabean revolt, circa 164 BCE.

Its rabbinic origin notwithstanding, one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah authorizes and requires that we must follow what the rabbis of the סנהדרין הגדול, the Great Sanhedrin, enact. “You shall do according to the word they shall tell you, from the place that Hashem will choose… you shall not deviate from the word they tell you right or left.” (Devarim 17: 10-11). Thus, when keeping a rabbinic law, we are also fulfilling a mitzvah in the Torah and when we neglect a rabbinic law, we are also in violation of a Torah command.

The institution of Chanukah revolves around a fundamental principle of Judaism. The prophet states, אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה חוקת שמים וארץ לא שמתי, “If not for My covenant day and night, the heavens and earth have no purpose.” The existence of the universe only has fulfillment when the commandments and philosophy of the Torah are put into practice.

 During the Second Temple around 168 BCE, Israel came under the domination of the prevailing Hellenistic power. Antiochus IV was determined to wipe away every aspect of Judaism. He was only thwarted by Jews who were prepared to stand up for Judaism, fight and if necessary, die to preserve our unique Jewish way of life. Theirs was not a fight for their physical survival. Theirs was a fight for the very survival of our Torah way of life, every single law. The words of the על הנסים , “For Your Miracles,” inserted into our prayers during Chanukah, explicitly describes the character of the warriors and their holy purpose. The war, which lasted about 20 years, was led by Torah scholars. In describing the Hashmonai family, Matityahu and his sons, leaders of the revolt against Antiochus and his Hellenist regime, the Ramban says, “ They were saints of the Most High without whom the learning of Torah and the observance of mitzvoth would have been forgotten in Israel.”

What verification do we have to prove their actions reflected a commitment to being in line with the will of God? How do we know their motivation was preserve Judaism? The first military successes involved the recapturing of Jerusalem and retaking the Temple. The fact that a single jug of unadulterated oil found on the Temple mount lasted for eight days, the time needed to produce new oil, indicated to the sages of that era the purity in the commitment of the Maccabees and their followers. It was only to preserve Judaism. The miracle of the oil was a sign to them that with God’s intervention, they would ultimately prove victorious. Just as it was unnatural for the oil to last 8 days, so it would be unnatural for these Jewish people to prevail over such great odds. The miracle of the oil was a sign of God’s assistance to their cause… to preserve Judaism. In his Laws of Chanukah, the Rambam mentions “the Hashmonai family restored the kingdom of Israel and the Temple for over 200 years.”

Authentic Jewish celebrations have one purpose, to reflect true ideas about God. Chanukah is inextricably tied to God’s purpose in creation, to establish and maintain the proper philosophy of life and human conduct. Participating in Chanukah’s religious performances, reciting Hallel each day and lighting candles on the preceding night, attests to our recognition of God’s intervention and our commitment to these same values, philosophic principles, and way of life. In effect we are saying, had the dire situation that our forebears faced, occur today, we too would join our fellow Jews in a fight to safeguard the survival of our Torah way of life.

Today, our struggle for Judaism’s survival is no less critical. We as well are faced with tremendous external pressures to change our laws, customs, and philosophy of life simply to accommodate current social trends and values. Will we rise to the occasion and stand firm as the Maccabees of old? As we say Hallel and light the Chanukiyah the last days of Chanukah, let us renew our steadfast commitment to our eternal Torah way of life.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan