Hanukkah and Religious Freedom

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By: 
Rabbi Marc D. Angel

Hanukkah is widely observed as a holiday that celebrates religious freedom. The persecuted Jews of ancient Israel waged battle against their Syrian/Hellenistic oppressors, and won the right to rededicate the Temple and to restore Jewish worship and religious practices.

Religious freedom is a wonderful thing. It allows us to worship God freely, without being coerced or intimidated by others.

Religious freedom is not a self-evident fact of life. As Jews, we have experienced many circumstances in which we did not enjoy this basic right. Medieval Iberia expelled Jews and Muslims, believing that only Catholics have truth and that “infidels” must not be tolerated. Saudi Arabia of today does not tolerate non-Muslims to practice their religions freely. Indeed, throughout history (including our own times), various groups have not granted religious freedom to “outsiders”. Only the faithful had rights in this world; and only the faithful would be blessed in the world to come. The infidels were deprived of rights in this world, and were doomed to perdition in the world to come.

The great 19th century Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh of Livorno pointed out an obvious—but startling—fact. In his book “Israel and Humanity,” he noted that historic Christianity and Islam claimed to be universal religions—and yet, they were not universal at all. They only made room for fellow believers; “infidels” were persecuted, even murdered. Those of other religions were not granted equal rights in this world, and were deemed to be unworthy of blessing in the world to come. Judaism—which is often depicted as a small, parochial tradition—is actually the religion that is the most universal. It teaches that all who accept the basic Noahide laws of morality are beloved by God. The righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. While not condoning outright idolatry, Judaism leaves much theological space for non-Jews to achieve spiritual happiness and fulfillment. All humanity is created in the image of God.

When we light the Hanukkah candles, we need to remember the value of religious freedom. We also need to remind ourselves—and others—that religious freedom is a two-way street. It allows us to claim the right to practice our religion freely; but it also entails that we grant this same freedom to others who do not share our religious beliefs and practices.

Religious freedom is a problematic concept for those who are sure that they, and only they, have the absolute Truth. Such people tend to be extreme and intolerant. Since only they have the Truth, they have no patience for those who have other beliefs; indeed, they don’t see the need to grant rights to others. They feel compelled to crush the “opposition”, either by converting them, by coercing them, by oppressing them, or even by murdering them. For the single-minded bigots, religious freedom exists only to serve their interests and to guarantee their freedoms; but it doesn’t involve a mutual commitment to religious freedom for others.

Even within the Jewish community, we have those who take this extreme view of religious freedom. They are happy to enjoy the benefits of freedom; but they disdain those Jews whose beliefs and observances are different from theirs.

Those who see themselves as the only Torah-True Jews do not think they should make religious space for others; on the contrary, they feel that the others should be brought into line with them even by means of coercion. They discredit those who are not in their camp. In Israel, where such extremists exert political power, they initiate coercive action and legislation that impinge on the freedom of others. Since they are convinced that they alone have Truth, they feel warranted in coercing others to follow in their ways. Their mentality is similar to extremists of other religions who find it difficult or impossible to let others enjoy religious freedom.

Religious freedom is not such a simple concept, after all. While it protects each of our rights to practice religion freely, it also demands that we respect the rights of others to do likewise. Religious freedom is the hallmark of a tolerant and wise nation and community. It is a lofty ideal to which all should aspire.

As we celebrate Hanukkah, let us seriously celebrate the value of religious freedom. Let us serve God with purity, with commitment, with spiritual heroism. And let us appreciate that all human beings also deserve the right of religious freedom. When extremists seek to deprive others of this freedom, all society suffers a loss of freedom and dignity.

The Hanukkah lights remind us that we can bring light into a dark world. We can hope that our lights will inspire others and bring them closer to the Almighty.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit said the Lord of hosts.” (Zekharia 4:6)