We all know the legend of the dreidel. As children we were taught the story of the young Jewish students who would gather in study-groups despite the Greek prohibition, and when the inspectors would make their rounds they would quickly take out their dreidels and hide their books. Yet as my mind began to develop, I wondered as I’m sure many have – were the Greeks really that thick? Did they not realize what these students were up to?
Rabbi David Heinemann offers a fascinating – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – insight to answer this question.
Greek culture was one that greatly respected and even worshipped the achievements of man. It was not a backward, anti-rational, close-minded society. They were also very multicultural. Why then could not tolerate the Jewish religion?
The Greeks, says Rabbi Heinemann, detested the concept of holiness within the mundane. Intellectual achievements were man’s domain; to ascribe their basis to the divine and give them sanctity was in their minds an offense to the greatness of man. Religion as a set of rituals, a culture, was innocuous, perhaps even beautiful, but it had no place in the territory of wisdom. Wisdom to them was a purely human achievement that must not be tainted by being called divine, and by sentiments of holiness. The sciences and the arts were of great value to them. But Torah from heaven they abhorred. Surely they acknowledged the wealth of wisdom contained within Torah. Torah study as another step in the advancement of human genius was acceptable to them, as yet another great accomplishment of the human mind. They only wished to purge God from it.
When the Greek inspectors discovered a group of Jewish youths hiding their books and playing dreidel, they did not imagine that the students had not been studying. But they saw the dreidels and they were placated in any case. Why? Because no one would play dreidel while involved in the study of divine wisdom. Their objective was fulfilled if the Jews had purged the divine from the study of Torah. Thus the youthful Jewish dissidents fooled the Greeks into believing they lacked the respect something other than a purely academic pursuit would warrant.
In truth of course these students were not dreidel-players, and held the Torah in the highest regard. This then was the struggle of Chanukah, and the ultimate victory of the Jewish people over the tyranny of the Greeks.
(A side note: Sure, everyone has a different peshat in who the Hellenists were, etc. The main thing here is mythos, not logos; שמע האמת ממי שאמרו; and as always, במילי מעלייתא דאית ביה דרשינן.)