What is the significance of beauty or esthetic matters within Judaism? Does Judaism teach that physical beauty is something we should ignore or downplay? Does Judaism teach that the “finer things in life” – art, music – should be regarded as insignificant or frivolous?
One might be inclined to think so, especially in light of the traditional Jewish emphasis on moral and spiritual virtues such as justice, compassion and reverence for God. But the lesson of the Menorah teaches a more subtle approach to this question.
Chanukah celebrates the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees’ miraculous military victory over the Greeks and their Hellenist allies. When the worship in the Temple was restored, many rituals and practices were reinstituted. Among them, the kohanim (priests) relit the menorah or candelabrum. But there were other practices in the Temple, such as, the setting out of the Showbread, the burning of incense, the sacrifices on the altar, and so on. Why does the festival of Chanukah focus particularly on the Menorah?
Jewish tradition teaches that a miracle occurred involving the oil of the Menorah; the oil fit for only one day’s use lasted eight days. But this only pushes our question back. Why did God see fit to create a miracle involving the Menorah rather than some other vessel in the Temple?
The Menorah was the most ornate and beautiful vessel in the tabernacle. It was also the most esthetically pleasing vessel to behold, especially when lit. There is nothing more entrancing than gazing at beautiful flames in a beautiful candelabrum. In a way, the Menorah is the archetypical vessel of all the vessels in the tabernacle. For what is the tabernacle if not a physical construction, which in some way represents the “dwelling place” for God within this world? Indeed, the entire tabernacle was rather ornate and beautiful, for it was constructed with great artisanship and attention to esthetic detail. And, the menorah was the most beautiful and most esthetically detailed piece of all.
By divine instruction, the Temple had two main chambers: the inner sanctum (kodesh kodashim) and the outer sanctum (kodesh). The inner sanctum contained the Ark with the tablets of the covenant. The outer sanctum contained several vessels including the menorah. Clearly, the inner sanctum was in some way holier than the outer sanctum. The Ark and the tablets of the covenant symbolize the Torah or divine wisdom. The menorah is a candelabrum of light, and light is a universally acknowledged metaphor for wisdom. Whereas the tablets bear the divine inscription of the commandments, the menorah bears no such obvious representation of divine revelation. Hence, while the Ark and the tablets represent divine wisdom, the menorah symbolizes, indeed, embodies, worldly wisdom and esthetic beauty.
The great legacy of the Greeks consisted in foundational contributions to worldly wisdom as well as great works of physical beauty or art. Some scholars would say that the Greeks single-handedly invented science and philosophy. The Greeks were also famous for their advances in sculpture and architecture. Unfortunately, during the Hasmonean period the Hellenists sought to force the Jewish people to assimilate into Greek culture. In effect, the Hellenists sought to rid the Jews of their commitment to God and Torah, and to replace that commitment with a single-minded devotion to Greek ideals.
With God’s miraculous help, the Jewish people stood fast in their commitment to Torah observance and refused to be swept up by assimilation. Still, the Jewish answer to Greek culture – worldly wisdom and art – is not to reject it completely.
The lighting of the beautiful menorah signifies that worldly wisdom and art can be elevated and even sanctified to some degree. The miracle of the menorah underscores this vital lesson. The Jewish way is to incorporate worldly wisdom and esthetics within a way of living that places a premium on Torah learning, and on a commitment to moral and spiritual virtues.
As we celebrate Chanukah in our own day, let us remain steadfast in our commitment to God and Torah observance. And, as we light the candles of the menorah, let us also celebrate the physical beauty that we find within our world, for it is also part of God’s creation. Let us appreciate the “finer things in life” – as long as we keep things in proper perspective. Beauty – within Judaism!
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Shabbat candles should be lit Fridays, December 26 at 5:10 p.m., January 2, 2015 at 5:16 p.m., January 9 at 5:22 p.m., January 16 at 5:29 p.m., January 23 at 5:37 p.m. and January 30 at 5:45 p.m.
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Editor’s note: Rabbi Dr. Joshua Golding, the rabbi of Anshei Sfard Congregation (Orthodox), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.