Hanukka’s message

The holiday is about a celebration of the liberty one feels when visible acts of religious expression are made possible.

Though it has connotations of religious extremism as well, in its essence, Hanukka celebrates the right to practice one’s faith in freedom. More than two millennia ago, Jews threw off the repressive government of the Seleucid Greeks, and regained the right to worship in accordance with their traditions.
Those who waged the war were religious zealots. It would be a gross exaggeration to say the Maccabees were liberals championing religious pluralism and freedom for all faiths. Once triumphant, they would never dream of allowing polytheists to worship freely.
Nevertheless, the concept of liberty as understood today can be said to be symbolized by the lighting of the Hanukka menorah. This was the message expressed, for instance, when one was lit in the palace of Saddam Hussein in the winter of 2003 after the Americans and their allies toppled his sadistically murderous regime.
Many themes reminiscent of the Hanukka tale were in attendance on that fateful night in Baghdad when Elan Carr, an American Jewish soldier of Iraqi descent, lit the menorah: a spectacular military victory; the defeat of a despot; the religious freedom afforded by the previous two.
A similar message was conveyed when in 1991, then-chief rabbi of Britain Jonathan Sacks lit Hanukka candles with Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the fast-disintegrating Soviet Union. For seven decades Jews and other religious groups had lived under repressive, totalitarian communism that persecuted the faithful. As he notes in an emotional op-ed recently published in The Wall Street Journal, Sacks went on to explain to Gorbachev that he was a “part of that story” of Hanukka because he had given back to the Jews their freedom.
While toppling Saddam Hussein and ending the Cold War were undoubtedly two of the biggest advances for freedom since World War II, we have been witness to a significant rollback of human rights in recent years.
On Tuesday – the same day the parents of Steven Sotloff, the American-Israeli journalist Islamic State criminals murdered this fall, honored his memory in a large outdoor public menorah-lighting ceremony in Miami – the organization Reporters Without Borders said that 2014 would go down as an exceptionally brutal year for journalists.
“Rarely have reporters been murdered with such a barbaric sense of propaganda shocking the entire world,” the organization noted in its annual report. Sixty-six reporters were killed so far this year. Some, like Sotloff and James Foley, were beheaded by Islamic State in a sick ritual purposely filmed and distributed on the Internet.
Sotloff, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, “was always focused on revealing persecution wherever it occurred,” his father, Arthur, said. “His grandparents taught him about the price of remaining silent.”
Refusing to remain silent has a lot to do with Hanukka. Inherent in the religious commandment is the obligation to publicize an historic incident – the miraculous victory of the Jews – in a highly visible ritual.
Every attempt should be made to universalize this message.
When Jews are able to openly light Hanukka candles in a foreign land, this is a sign of at least a minimal level of religious tolerance. Similarly, when none-Jewish religious minorities are free to worship, it tells us something positive about their host country.
Today, too many faith-based groups are discriminated against. In most of the Middle East, including in relatively “moderate” countries such as Jordan and Egypt, visibly Jewish individuals – the sort who wear kippot or tefillin – are unsafe. In Europe, just seven decades after the Holocaust, Jews are fearful of being identified as such by, say, going to synagogue, participating in Jewish events or dressing in a manner that reveals their faith.
Christians are persecuted in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Buddhists suffer because of their faith in Vietnam, Myanmar and China. Baha’i suffer in Iran and Egypt.
The message of Hanukka is, in its universalized form, a celebration of the liberty one feels when visible acts of religious expression are made possible. As we light the Hanukka candles we should appreciate the religious freedom that allows this seemingly simple act and we should vow to work to ensure that members of other faiths throughout the world enjoy the same freedom.