Chanukah: Holy Boldness and Paradox

Daniel describes a vision in which he sees four animals[1] that the sages interpret as corresponding to four great empires. The leopard in his vision corresponds to the Greek empire. Even though this was not a positive connotation for the leopard, the sages also refer to the leopard in a positive way. In Pirkei Avot they say, “Be bold as a leopard…to do the will of your father in heaven.”[2] And yet, surprisingly, in the very same mishnah, the same sage, Yehudah ben Teima, describes boldness negatively, “A bold-faced [person, is headed] to purgatory.” So which is it? Is boldness positive or is it negative?

To answer this question, we introduce the concept of “carrying contradictions” (נְשִׂיאַת הֲפָכִים) i.e., the ability to hold on to, and to accept as valid, two contradictory statements. In other words, the ability to contain a paradox. The sages explain that the verse, “One did God speak, two did I hear, for boldness is to God”[3] alludes to exactly this trait in God. For God can hold as valid and even utter two statements that seem to contradict one another but nonetheless came from the same source and are uttered at the same moment, as it were. The intrinsic connection between boldness and God’s ability to speak two contradictory utterances at once reveals that boldness represents the power of “carrying contradictions,” the power to contain a paradox. This boldness particularly manifests in the Oral Torah, and more specifically, in the many disputes within it, about which the sages say, “Both this [opinion] and that [opinion] are the words of the Living God.”[4]

While the peaceful coexistence of two sides of a paradox is inherent to Torah logic, Greek logic cannot integrate contradiction and paradox. It must force a determination: it is either one or the other of two contradictory statements. Greek philosophers are famous for having discovered a number of famous paradoxes among them the mathematical paradox attributed to Pythagoras, Zeno’s paradoxes on space and motion, and Epimenides’ liar paradox. But these paradoxes did not free them to think beyond the confines of their logic. Instead, they proved to be a source of continuing distress and frustration.

In the same vein, the internal cultural contradiction found in Ancient Greece—a division between the common folk who nurtured a pagan culture worshiping many gods and goddesses and the elites who were given to belief in a single logical God, embraced an absolute morality and viewed the human soul as sacred—was never reconciled and the two were constantly on the verge of clashing. According to the Greeks, one can be either totally immersed in materialism or totally immersed in spirit-intellect. Jewish wisdom, conversely, says that reality is not “either or” but rather, “this and that.” The contradictions and especially the ability to carry opposites, points us to the dimension of concealed wisdom, where paradoxes can be tolerated.

There are three major paradoxes regarding the Jewish people. The first is that on the one hand, “Israel is the boldest of the nations.”[5] On the other hand, we are considered weak, as we state in the Chanukah Al Hanisim prayer, “You gave the strong into the hands of the weak.”[6] the explanation is that we are weak, but at the same time, we are bold (not mighty). We employ daring and are willing to sacrifice our souls despite our innate weakness. It is then that might is given to us from Heaven. This paradox parallels our natural reality prior to the Giving of the Torah, when we were conscious of the fact that we were weak and thus did not sink into pride. Even then, our innate existence was already a type of paradox between the fact that we were a small and weak people, yet at the same time bold. It is the humble integration of this paradox that made Israel worthy of receiving the Torah. This paradox pertains to the behavioral level of the soul and is Israel’s antidote to the kingdom of Greece, the strong physical enemy.

The second paradox is that on the one hand, the mishnah rejoins us to be “bold like a leopard,” while conversely, it says that “the bold-faced to purgatory.” On one hand, the sages say that the Torah was given to the Jewish people because it correlates to its boldness and empowers it. On the other hand, the sages say that the Torah was given in order to weaken Israel’s boldness. The explanation is that in the inner, conscious powers of the soul, boldness is not positive. It is better to have a “humble face” and not a “bold face.” In the super-conscious (surrounding, makifim) powers of the soul, however, in the attributes of will and self-sacrifice, boldness is sometimes necessary. This paradox parallels the actual giving of the Torah. It is then that the people of Israel were imbued with the attributes of fear and modesty, elevating the boldness into our collective concealed super-conscious. This paradox pertains to the emotional level of the soul. It is Israel’s antidote to Greek culture, which lauds brazenness and scorns humility and modesty.

The third paradox: There are many explanations for every word of the Torah, and they are all valid—simultaneously. The sages in the Oral Torah say, “Both this and that (opinion) are the words of the Living God, and the determined law is according to the teaching of the House of Hillel.” Uniquely, the sages say that both opinions are valid. But they determine which of those opinions should be adopted as practical Jewish law. This paradox parallels the actual study of Torah, following the Giving of the Torah; the intellectual faculty of the soul and is Israel’s antidote to Greek wisdom.

[1] Daniel 7:1-7.

[2] Pirkei Avot 5:20.

[3] Psalms 62:12.

[4] Eruvin 13b.

[5] Beitzah 25b.

[6] Al Hanisim prayer for Chanukah.

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