A celebration of religious freedom

by | Dec 5, 2016 | Torah Thought

Hanukkah’s origins in the drama of a small, yet determined people with a large vision standing up to the might of the Hellenistic empire of antiquity, is a poignant demonstration and a timeless reminder of Israel’s unique and timely legacy. The heroic Maccabees’ successful revolt of the few against the many in 167 B.C.E. following the dictates of the Syrian Greek King Antiochus IV that sought to deprive the Jews of practicing their own faith, was truly a stance of a proud conscience. Our refusal to submit to a superior physical power when our spiritual inheritance was at stake is a clear indication of how deep a bond we held with both our religious convictions and sovereign independence, ready to sacrifice the sacred gift of life for the sake of an ancestral covenant with the compelling God of Freedom and Responsibility.

The word Hanukkah and its festival meaning represent the spirit of dedication to irreplaceable ideals and ideas through the cleansing of Jerusalem’s temple from pagan defilement. The Talmud’s focus on the miracle of the cruse of oil lasting eight days reflects the rabbis’ aversion to the bloodshed and the Hasmoneans’ intra-political strife associated with the war and beyond. Consequently, the Books of the Maccabees were not included in our Biblical canon, but were preserved through the Catholic one. In truth, the conflict was not only against the enemy from without, but in response to the assimilation from within. The encounter with the dominant, flourishing and tempting Greek culture led, however, to a fruitful philosophical engagement influencing Rabbinic thought and logic.

Hanukkah’s flickering lights have come to symbolize through centuries of suffering the miracle of Jewish survival in spite of great odds, while endowing the human family with an enduring hope for a world transformed and redeemed. Let us continue to pray and labor that the ancient promise of prophetic Shalom, the first such inspiring and pioneering message of universal embrace, will yet be realized for all of God’s children including the offspring of Isaac and Ishmael whose familial bond cannot be denied.

How frustrating and telling that there are Palestinian and other Arab leaders attempting to re-write history with the shameful aid of UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) by removing the incontrovertible Jewish connection, as well as the Christian one, with the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and thus from the Land of Israel. These dark forces are bent on extinguishing Hanukkah’s authenticity and delegitimize the State of Israel.

Hanukkah’s celebration of religious freedom of choice is vigorously tested and contested in the controversy over Jewish worship at the Western Wall and its southern end (Robinson’s Arch). The Women of the Wall have long struggled for equal acceptance. The Reform and Conservative movements are painfully disappointed over the unfulfilled agreement by the Israeli government for egalitarian worship in the southern section. These are a cause for concern in the critical context of Jewish pluralism in Israel and Israel- Diaspora relations.

As the United States, the State of Israel and the entire free world fight the blight of terrorism which is led by Iran, much can be learned from the old and new Maccabees’ saga and spirit. In the still restive region where Hanukkah’s drama took place, so ironically and tragically, Syria’s dictator Assad with Iranian and Russian participation, sheds his people’s blood including so many children in the barbaric bombing of Aleppo. The Islamic State (ISIS) continues its assault on civilization. The terrorists negate the life-enlightening, pluralistic and inclusive principles of Hanukkah’s bright Menorah daring to challenge the darkness of oppression in all its destructive forms. All humans have now become vulnerable Jews, yet empowered with our people’s indomitable faith and noble example to face a formidable foe—physically, spiritually and psychologically—and prevail.

—Dr. Israel Zoberman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim.