Perhaps more than anything else, Jewish culture, and certainly the Jewish religion, is distinguished by the Halacha. I refer you to all the spoofs about the halachot of Christmas trees, of watching TV, of making ones bed, etc., etc. The reason these spoofs are funny is that normal people do not have such a thing as Halacha, that examines the tiniest minutiae of how something is done in order to do it in some sort of ideal fashion, especially when it comes to matters that could be seen as fairly trivial.*
Even though there is what to critique, it is important to understand the reasons for our loyalty to this system. Granted, as religious Jews, we feel obligated by the Torah itself to subscribe to the halachic system. But were we to really feel that this system is counterproductive, we would find a way out. This, since the system itself allows for extra-legal measures such as horaat shaa or et laasot leshem, when the system would otherwise face breakdown. (Whether these particular tools are available to us is not critical to the present discussion.) My point being that, on some level, we subscribe to the halachic system because we sense that it is worthwhile subscribing to it on its own merits.
I believe that the halachic enterprise is responsible for two very important facets of our collective existence.
I) The first is our relationship with spirituality and ethics. It is certainly difficult to be objective but I think it would be fair to make the claim that, historically, the average Jew was significantly more connected to the ethics and spirituality of his faith than would be true of the average non-Jew. While other factors bear to play on this, such as the pariah status of the Jewish community, the higher standards of literacy, etc., I would argue that the main factor that provided the Jew with his social and religious values was the fact that they were constantly in his face, via the Halacha. That is to say that Halacha provides constant and intrusive contact points between the individual and spirituality
Moreover, the nature of finding the ideal way to serve G-d, and not merely to settle with approximations, is a type of worship that simulates an emotive connection. That is to say that the halachic enterprise does not stop with simply stopping to remind us of G-ds presence. Its obsession with detail is meant to engender a very specific response. Many of the details in the Halacha are a question of "lechatchilla", meaning the best way to perform a mitzvah, and not a question of whether we are simply fulfilling the mitzvah or not. In and of itself, this creates a proper awareness of G-d when relating to G-d, it is axiomatically appropriate to serve Him in the best way possible. On some level, the relationship that Halacha creates is that of a lover for his beloved. A true lovers concern for, and infatuation with, his beloved, will make him constantly seek the best way to please her. By looking for that best way, we are responding to what our relationship to G-d can, and ultimately must, become.
2) The second and more basic accomplishment of the halachic enterprise, however, is giving the Jewish people the cohesiveness and distinct identity to survive in exile for thousands of years. Putting it differently, Halacha has made it more difficult for the Jew to stand alone away from a Jewish community and even more difficult to blend in with the surrounding host society. Indeed, the so-called Marrano Jews of Spain had the choice of essentially not being Jewish by not keeping Halacha, or to be Jewish and risk being caught in its practice. In a way unique to the Jewish people, the natural human desire to maintain ones roots was one that forced the Jew to remain separate. To put it a different way, halachic Judaism is simply not a religion that one can observe in ones heart.
It is in this vein, that the famous secular (or at least non-traditional) cultural Zionist, Echad Ha-am, coined the famous words that, ”More than the Jewish people has kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jewish people”. Of course, for some Zionist thinkers, this is something that was only necessary when the Jews were in exile and needed some sort of artificial preservative. Now that we are back in our land, we are no longer in danger of national extinction. Or are we?
The loss of our national identity that would nonetheless result from giving up on the halachic enterprise would, nonetheless, spell out the end of the Jewish people as we know it, even if it did not spell its physical death. We would become an empty shell devoid of the genius that has made the Jewish people sui generis, that has made us certainly one of, and perhaps even the greatest, of the world’s focal points.
It is perhaps on this level that R. Akiva speaks even more to the point than does Echad Haam when he compares our involvement with Torah to the relationship between fish and water. When R. Akiva said Torah, he was speaking about the halachic enterprise the need to thoroughly analyze and subsequently observe the details of religious behavior. This is illustrated before our own eyes when we look at the physical and cultural assimilation of those major segments of Jewry who have either partially or completely abandoned the Halacha.
Simply put, true Jewish survival is dependent on the halachic enterprise. (A survival which otherwise remains difficult to explain in normal historical terms though not someone we like to quote, Arnold Toynbee was perhaps correct in referring to the Jews as a fossil in the context of standard history. In like fashion, a more recent writer, more sympathetic to the Jews, compared living next door to Orthodox Jews to the obviously impossible anachronism of living next to Edomites).
Chanukah is a festival that celebrates our survival as a culture. It is no coincidence that we celebrate that survival through the performance of Halacha. Indeed, in its pristine observance, festive meals and other such merry-making is not the fare of this holiday. Instead, we have a heavily layered observance of its main mitzvah, the lighting of candles. This small act may seem fairly insignificant and not especially inspiring. Nonetheless, more than many songs and meditations, this mitzvah eloquently proclaims that the survival of Jewish culture is determined by the complicated performance of little acts.
* It is true that there is developed ritual law in Islam and in various tribal religions, but from my limited knowledge, it appears that this does not compare to Halacha, both in its attention to detail as well as in its incredibly thorough analysis. Moreover, to the extent that it exists in Islam, it is certainly something learned from the Jewish experience.