Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
by R. Aharon Ziegler
Every war, every battle brings bloodshed- on both sides. When one’s physical life is threatened then one is permitted to kill the pursuer, “Haba Le’Harogecha, Hash’kem veHorego”[Berachot 62b]. So Jews in Persia when Haman threatened “Lehash’mid u’leharog et kol ha’Yehudim”, to kill every Jewish male, female and child, without exception, had every right to take up arms for self-defense. However, the Greeks and Hellenists in days of Chanukah did not threaten our very lives, their intent was “Le’hash’kicham Toratecha U’leha’aviram Mei’chukei Retzonecha”, to deprive us of our Torah studies and religious observances. The question raging amongst our Sages was, whether or not an armed rebellion is halachically permitted.
The Gemara Shabbat [22a] right in middle of discussing Chanukah cites a verse from parshat Vayeishev [Bereishit 37:24] which has nothing to do with Chanukah and interprets it homiletically. The Torah states “They [the brothers] threw him [Yosef] into the pit; the pit was empty, no water was in it”. So the Gemara asks, “If the pit was empty isn’t it obvious that no water was in it”? And the Gemara answers, “The redundancy implies that there was no water in it- but there were serpents and scorpions in it.”
Rav Soloveitchik asked, “What does this drasha have to do with Chanukah, why insert this drasha right here?” The Rav gave a wonderful and insightful answer. The Gemara did not want to openly discuss the debate of our Sages whether the war against the Greeks should be fought-or not. So the Gemara hints to us a message that life does not tolerate a void or a vacuum. If there in no Torah influence then invariably a negative influence will step in to fill that void. There is no such thing as being devoid of Torah, Shabbat, Kashrut, Brit Milah, Taharat HaMish’pacha, etc., and yet remain neutral. If there is no Torah then there will be Greek influence and philosophy, Avodah Zara philosophy, Communism, Socialism, Secularism or any other anti-Torah “ism”. That’s what the Gemara means. If there is no “water” in the pit, and water is the symbol of Torah [Ein Mayim Elah Torah, Bava Kama 82a] –then it is a given, that serpents and scorpions will find their way into the pit.
So the Gemara took a position within the discussion of Chanukah, and the answer was, yes! We must rebel and fight, even at the cost of human lives, because without Torah, Judaism will be spiritually annihilated and that is tantamount to physical destruction.