I published the following column in the Canadian Jewish News last week, but since they don't run it on-line, I'm including it here. Some of the ideas I used in a Chanukah article in YU's To Go from 5771 are involved here, but this is more sophisticated. Neal Stephenson fans (Anathem, specifically) may particularly like it:
My elementary school teachers explained Hellenic culture by telling our class that Greeks worshipped the beautiful body. Underscoring this point by noting that ancient Olympic competitors performed without clothing, these teachers succeeded in conveying an indelible image, but they oversimplified the role of Beauty in the original Chanukah and its celebrations today.
Greek culture honoured the body's physical beauty, but their emphasis was upon a broader conception of Beauty, or Kallos. Plato envisioned an abstract universe in which the characteristics we express as adjectives exist as nouns – a perfect Triangle, a perfect Blue, and a perfect Beauty, as independent entities.
Within that abstract Platonic universe, Kallos occupies a place of honour, and so every beautiful thing in our world is automatically admired as a reflection of that higher Kallos, even in the absence of any other redeeming characteristic. To cite from Plato's Phaedrus (Jowett translation), the most elevated person who observes beauty in our world "is transported with the recollection of the true beauty… he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad." And as Plato wrote in his Symposium (Nehamas translation), "Only in the contemplation of beauty is human life worth living."
This ideal was rejected by the Maccabees, for Jewish tradition spurns the idea that Beauty has inherent value. Beauty is neither good nor evil; it is only a characteristic of a good or evil entity. As Proverbs 31:30 states, "Charm is false and beauty is empty"; we don't admire Beauty for its own value.
However, Jewish tradition does teach that the act of Beautification, Hiddur in Hebrew, demonstrates devotion; as the Sages translated the Jews' song of praise at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:2), "This is my G-d, and I will beautify Him." Therefore, the same Maccabees who rejected Kallos pursued Hiddur in establishing the restored Temple's Menorah. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) teaches, "The branches of their Menorah were iron rods, and the Hasmoneans coated them with tin. When they became wealthier, they made the branches of silver. When they became still wealthier, they made the branches of gold."
We follow in the footsteps of the Maccabees and employ Hiddur on Chanukah, too. The Talmud records a baseline practice of lighting one flame per household on each night of Chanukah, but Jews all over the world follow the Talmud's highest "mehadrin" practice of lighting multiple flames, based on the number of Chanukah nights that have passed. As the 13th century commentary Tosafot explains, this practice is called mehadrin from the word Hiddur, signifying that it beautifies the mitzvah; we practice Hiddur in order to glorify our Judaism.
Beyond the religious message, Hiddur of a mitzvah also offers great practical value. I wish for my children to value the religious decisions I have made, but if my child sees rote observance, begrudging fulfillment of obligations and bottom-line satisfaction of expectations, she may find that model less than compelling. On the other hand, if our children will see that a mitzvah is a thing worthy of Hiddur, then perhaps they will desire to own it themselves. With their beautified Menorah, the Maccabees encouraged us to demonstrate, for ourselves and for our children, that mitzvot are worthy of Hiddur.