Hanukka: Religious freedom in a unified Jerusalem

Readers should be shocked at Hanukka’s centrality in the Jewish world today, both in Israel and the Diaspora. How did this transformation even take place?

For 2,000 years Hanukka was a minor holiday in the Hebrew calendar. Hanukka was not a celebration mandated by the Torah and the rabbis of ancient Israel did not even canonize a chronicle of the eight-day holiday in the Bible. Readers should be shocked at Hanukka’s centrality in the Jewish world today, both in Israel and the Diaspora. How did this transformation even take place? Modernity is responsible for the elevation of this minor holiday to superstar status.
The Emancipation of Jews in Europe and the granting of equality in America more than 200 years ago brought new contacts between “a people apart” and the larger world. Hanukka’s proximity in the calendar to Christmas – and the yearning of Jews not to feel alone and abandoned as outsiders at Christmastime – gave the Jewish holiday more prominence. In America, the story of the ancient Maccabees’ fight for religious freedom in the face of the persecutions of the Hellenists fit well into the narrative of a minority religious group’s place in the Golden Land.
The world of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln did not seem far removed from the struggles of a chosen people in 164 BCE.
The rise of the modern State of Israel in modernity transformed Hanukka into a major holiday, not because of the struggle for religious freedom so prominent in America but because of the struggle for national independence by both the Jews of old and their descendants in the 20th century.
The Hanukka story was seen as the epitome of the Jewish yearning for sovereignty in the Land of Israel. While Zionists thinkers and leaders disagreed – often vehemently – on a host of issues, Jews as different as Cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am and Political Zionist Max Nordau agreed that Hanukka was central to the modern Jewish narrative.
Thus, a minor holiday is a major holiday in Israel today.
I argue that this dichotomy is as not clear-cut as it seems at first glance. Jewish nationalism and the yearning of all people of faith for religious freedom are connected integrally. The best example of this is Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel.
Since 1967, after years of Jews being barred from the holiest sites in Judaism, Israelis finally had the opportunity to pilgrimage in all areas of Jerusalem. This was not the case under Jordan’s control of Judea and Samaria – what some call “the West Bank” – from 1948 to the Six-Day War. Today, Jerusalem holy sites for people of Western faiths and every religion and for the most ardent of atheists are open to all.
Zionism and Jewish independence are crucial for religious freedom and access in Israel’s capital. Under an Arab regime in any part of the city, Jews would be forbidden any right of pilgrimage. Knowing the fate of Christians in the Middle East outside of the Jewish state, Arab control of Jerusalem’s Old City would likely lead to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Via Dolorosa being off limits to pilgrims. To divide Jerusalem in a delusion of “land for peace” would be a disaster for almost all people of faith.
Both Jewish sovereignty and religious freedom are of one piece.
Yet, there is some irony to the integral connection between Jewish sovereignty in Israel and religious freedom for all people. Violence and politics are contributing to limitations on Jewish religious freedom in the Jewish state. First, Jews today in Israel have been barred from praying on the Temple Mount, in fear that this will incite another “al-Aksa intifada.”
Second, the status of Jews in Israel in movements outside of Orthodoxy has always been called into question and their legitimacy not recognized. Third and most alarming is the recent attack by terrorists on a Jerusalem synagogue and their murder of Jews at prayer. All of these issues must be dealt with by Israelis if they want to resolve pivotal issues of identity and sovereignty.
While Israel need not embrace the American model enshrined in the First Amendment and in Jefferson’s wall between religion and state, the Jewish state must struggle with dilemmas that strike of the heart of identity and security. The ancient events of Hanukka should inspire all Jews to search for solutions in a modern world very different from that of the Maccabees.
Let us hope and pray that the messages of Hanukka endure and inspire people of all faiths.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.