Sunday, November 27, 2011


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 Hasmoneans defeated the powerful Greek army lies a fundamental ideological battle, one that still rages today. These two ideologies represent opposing attitudes towards the purpose of life. There is a Gemara 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 - why? Because 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 Gemara tells us that Rabbi Akiva knew that the Roman expected him to say that Hashem’s creation was greater, and the Roman was ready to ask that if that is so then why did Hashem create a human being and then man proceeds to perform bris mila, cutting away part of the human body, thus implying that man is improving upon Hashem’s creation. Rabbi Akiva thereby avoided this by stating that man’s creation is indeed greater. How can we understand this Gemara - surely Hashem’s creation is infinitely greater than that of man?

There was a deeper disagreement underlying this discussion. The Roman represented the Greco-Roman philosophy that emphasised the perfection of man. The Greeks idolised the human body and human intellect, man was naturally perfect and the Romans basically represented a continuation of that ideology. Consquently, the Jewish practice of bris mila was particularly abhorrent to them; it represented taking something that was perfect and damaging it. Rabbi Akiva represented the Torah belief - that Hashem deliberately created the world in an imperfect fashion so that man could perfect it himself. That is why Hashem creates a useless kernel of wheat; of course Hashem is infinitely greater than mankind, however, He wants man to go through the process of turning it into something greater. This too is the symbolism of Bris Mila - the idea that 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 the good of growth or improvement. Life is one big opportunity to satisfy all of one’s natural drives.

Given all this, it should be of little surprise that one of the three mitzvas that the Greeks forbade the Jews from keeping was Bris Mila. They sought to uproot the idea that man is NOT made perfect, that life is about developing oneself, striving to remove his negative traits and improve his positive attributes. However, 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 the concept of improving one’s character - instead it focuses far more on deriving physical pleasure. We, however know that the only true satisfaction is derived from growing, from becoming a kinder, more spiritual person, a more thoughtful spouse, a more attentive parent, and, most importantly, a better Eved Hashem.

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