The holiday of Hanukkah, which begins this weekend, celebrates the victory of Jews committed to maintaining their unique traditions against the overwhelming cultural force of Hellenistic civilization—and the powerful empire behind it—with the lighting of candles. For Meir Soloveichik, it is thus an opportunity to contrast the Hellenic and Judaic attitudes toward fire:
According to Greek myth, Prometheus and Epimetheus were charged by the gods with creating man. Zeus gave man fire, but then Prometheus taught humankind to sacrifice animal bones to the gods and keep the best meat for themselves. Furious at the deception, Zeus took fire away, but Prometheus hid it in a reed and bore it away from Olympus. In response, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and sentenced him to having his liver pecked out by an eagle over and over.
It is . . . fascinating that in talmudic tales, we find a rabbinic story about the origins of fire that is a mirror image of the Prometheus story. Adam and Eve are banished from the garden and enter a dark and unredeemed world. But in a great act of love, the Talmud tells us, God took two stones and instructed Adam in the art of creating fire. Whereas the Greeks see in fire the story of a rebellion against the gods, and a world where power prevails, fire for Jews epitomizes God’s mercy, as well the existence of the divine-human partnership.
The contrast between the fire of Greece and the flames of the Talmud allows us to understand that for Jews, to light the menorah is to do more than mark a miracle; it is to look at those small flames and ponder what biblical monotheism bequeathed to a pagan world, and the miraculous endurance of the tiny people that brought this message to humanity.
We are indeed forever indebted to Athens for its intellectual achievements, but the menorah’s flames remind us of the insights found not in Athens but Jerusalem—that human beings are created in the image of God, and therefore precious and inviolable; that history has purpose; and that countries stand under the judgement of a good and just God.