During Chanukah the Jewish people relive their military and ideological victory over ancient Greece. We still hear the echoes of this cultural clash today, as Winston Churchill wrote in his History of the Second World War, "No other two races [but the Jews and Greeks] have set such a mark upon the world. Each of them from angles so different have left us with the inheritance of its genius and wisdom...the main guiding light in modern faith and culture."

The Classic Jewish texts label the period during which the Hellenists held influence over Israel as the "Greek Exile." Perplexingly, however, during the era, there was no attempt to drive the Jews from their homeland. This begs the question: who, or what, did they view as having been exiled?

Jewish sages provide an explanation by comparing our existence under the Hellenic empire to the darkness at the beginning of creation. The first two lines of Genesis read, "In the beginning...the earth was empty...and darkness was upon the face of the deep." The command "Let there be light" then banished the darkness. However, according to the sequence of events presented in the Torah, the luminous heavenly bodies including the sun and stars did not come into existence until much later. This first "light" therefore must be understood not as light in a conventional sense, but as a primordial light of God -- the essence of spirituality.

Life in the Greek exile is thus seen as comparable to a universe lacking a basic the element of spirituality. Remarkably, while traditional Jewish sources compare Greek culture to spiritual Darkness, they simultaneously confirm that externally, ancient Greece was the most beautiful and cultured of all civilizations. Indeed, it was in Hellenism that for the first time in Jewish history, Jews found an intellectually stimulating alternative to their Jewish heritage. Consequently, in a similar fashion to what we see has occurred around us today, the glamour of Greece, her arts and comforts, enticed many Jews to complete assimilation.

The Hellenistic world glorified the human mind and body. To the Greek philosopher, the world was run by natural laws, entirely accessible to the human intellect and observation. Phenomena and concepts to which human logic could be applied were pursued, and those that lay beyond the confines of pure reason or sensory perception were shunned as folly.

The foundation of modern Western thought derives from this view. We see as an illustration of this point the widespread modern-day materialistic assumption that there exists nothing beyond the physical world. Such a view relegates elevated notions such as freewill, love, and the human soul to the base realm of biochemical phenomena. Consistent with this view is today's ubiquitous "relative morality" which denies the existence any absolute right or wrong. Existentialism, the philosophy of life's absurd futility and inherent meaninglessness is also a natural outgrowth of Hellenistic thought. These disheartening conclusions, held by so many today, emerge from the perspective of the world as a circus of atomic nuts and bolts lacking any overall purpose or deliberate design.

Yet many thinking people consider ridiculous the view that life is utterly meaningless, and that that there is nothing wrong with cold-blooded murder other than personal preference. Even Bertrand Russell, this century's most eloquent atheistic philosopher conceded, "I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it." Those who posses the humility to concede that the human mind's reasoning faculty has its limits are forced to reexamine this constricted view of reality.

At the time when Athens and Jerusalem locked horns, a core of Jews maintained that the mechanical laws of nature are subordinate to a higher reality. They saw the glory that was Greece as a bleak shackling of the human spirit. The brilliant spiritual intensity of humankind had been eclipsed by the superficiality of externals, only because these aspects of reality were more readily explained by human reason.

This is the "darkness" of Greece. What Greek culture exiled was the spark of the human soul and spirit. Traditional Jews on the other hand, recognized the intellect as the soul's most powerful and reliable tool -- but nothing more. They were bold enough to accept their tradition that concurred with universal human intuition: that objective moral and spiritual realties exist, despite the intellect's inability to articulate them comprehensively. This very same debate rages today between secular thought and Judaism.

It is by no coincidence then that the miracle of the Jewish victory over Greece culminated in the relatively modest miracle of the single cruse of oil that burned for eight days. To Greek thinkers and their modern day secular heirs, there are rules of nature that cannot be breached -- the physical world is wondrous, but it has its insurmountable limitations. The symbol of the oil burning for eight days is that within the very stuff of which the physical world is made, rests a very real inner dimension of the spiritual. The challenge of the Jew is to see beyond the simple physical and uplift it, allowing the spiritual potential to shine forth.

To commemorate our victory over the darkness of Greece, we place a delicately flickering candle on our windowsills to shine into the stark black night in the dead of winter. This is our expression of the metaphor that while society and many "intellectuals" may portray man as merely a dull sack of cells, the reality is that deep within every one of us glows a spiritual ember waiting to burst aflame to allow us to fulfill our spiritual potential. This is the message of Chanukah, this is the message of being a "light unto the nations", and this is the message of the Jewish people.