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Hanukkah and Honeycombs: A Sephardi Perspective on Ideal and Real Judaism 
 
Amer Sephardic Federation 
חנוכה שמח!


The Spanish philosopher and communal leader, Rabbi Yosef Albo (1380-1444), is one of the great figures of Sephardi-Jewish history, and his four-part work, Sefer HaIkarim (“The Book of Roots”), remains a classic of Jewish thought. As we celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, its worthwhile examining one of the central intentions of Albo’s classic book.

On the surface, Sefer HaIkarim is a response to Maimonides’ enumeration of thirteen principles of the Jewish Faith. Against Maimonides, Albo argues that there are three principles in Judaism, not thirteen: God’s existence, reward and punishment, and the Divine revelation of the Torah.

On a deeper level, however, Albo attempts in Sefer HaIkarim to temper elitist and extremist tendencies within Judaism. He argues that there is authentic religious value to worship that does not meet the high standards of stringent interpretations of Jewish Law. The problem is that such interpretations often demoralize those who cannot live up to the most rigid and exacting standards.
Albo illustrates his more user-friendly vision of Judaism through a beautiful metaphor that he introduces in the beginning of his book. Bees, he begins, naturally know to construct their honeycombs with six-sided hexagons. Why, Albo wonders, didn’t God create them with the knowledge to make their hives with circles? After all, circles constitute the “perfect form,” an idea that dates back to Plato and Aristotle and that was widely held among Sephardi sages during the medieval period.

The problem, Albo continues, is that building with circles will leave gaps, or dead spaces, in the honeycomb. When circles rub up against each other, there will be always be empty spaces in the corners.

Theoretically, notes Albo, you could solve the problem of gaps by building with squares. Squares will fill a surface and not leave any pace between them. All of the space will be covered. Squares, however, are far from the perfection of circles. So what is the virtue of six-sided hexagons? On the one hand, hexagons more closely approach the perfection of circles than squares. One the other hand, hexagons, like squares, leave no gaps in the hive.
The object of the metaphor should be clear: Judaism that insists upon perfection is like a honeycomb built with circles. While those circles will be perfect, in and of themselves, they will leave many dead spaces between them. In other words, there will be no place for Jews who don’t reach perfection. On the other hand, Judaism that is willing to build a honeycomb with squares constitutes too much of a compromise, too far a deviation from perfection.

In Albo’s metaphor, Judaism should resemble a honeycomb constructed with hexagons. Approaching the perfection of the circle, hexagons ensure that no dead spaces, i.e., no Jews, are left behind. Even if perfection is too high a standard, Judaism should still strive to bring as many Jews as close to perfection as possible.

Albo’s vision beautifully captures the animating spirit of Classic Sephardi Judaism, and it’s only fitting to remember his message during the holiday of Hanukkah. After all, the precious cruse of oil that stands for the heart of the Jewish tradition needs to be preserved for the Jewish people as a whole. In our time of religious extremism, on the one hand, and full-fledged assimilation on the other, the classic Sephardi way of balancing openness with excellence remains as relevant as it was during Albo’s lifetime.
12/03/2018 

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