Let's Keep the Flame of Religious Freedom Burning Bright

December 22, 2014
The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabee resistance over the Syrians led by Antiochus Epiphanes. The Syrians had taken over Jerusalem, desecrated the holy Temple, abolished Judaism, prohibited observance of Shabbat and the Festivals, in addition to outlawing critical Jewish rites like circumcision. The Jews were given two options by Antiochus, conversion or death. The first night of Hanukkah -- 25 Kislev -- commemorates the day the Temple was renamed for the Greek god Zeus, and the resistance movement led by the Maccabees developed. The Maccabees, led by Mattathias and Judah, ousted the Syrians and restored Jerusalem to the Jewish people. When the Maccabees went into the Temple to rededicate it and restore it to the Jewish tradition, they first relit the ner tamid (eternal flame), which always burned in the Temple, and still does in synagogues across the world today. They found only a single jar of oil, which was enough for only one day, but it burned for eight days -- the miracle of Hanukkah that we celebrate today with our nine branched menorah or hanukkiah. The lights of the menorah invite us to remember the struggles of the ancient Jewish people for their self-determination and their religious freedom. The bravery of the Maccabees in resisting Antiochus shows us the importance of standing up against oppression. As we look onto the world today, we see the disempowerment, the oppression and the imprisonment of religious minorities. We see their struggles and recognize that plight in our own tradition. We know that in the United States, Jews have been free to pursue our faith and to organize our communal lives, equal under law and in practice, without government interference. Thus America — through its Constitution — created a system of religious liberty that has proved to be generally fair and effective, one that Jews wish to preserve. Jews have learned, through history that both religion and the state flourish best when they are separate. Yet, as the Jewish community has been the  quintessential victims of religious persecution, and of all people, we understand the duress of this persecution and will devote ourselves to any measures designed to lessen its impact. It is our duty and obligation to prevent this persecution in the future. As you light candles tonight, keep in mind those around the world who are not able to worship god as they chose -- or not to worship -- or live according to their conscience. And, as we light candles next Hanukkah, may those who are oppressed for their beliefs know freedom and understanding.

Related Posts