The Jewish Commitment to Religious Liberty from the Maccabees to Present Day
This post was written by RAC Legislative Assistant Molly Benoit as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s “Ten Minutes of Torah” series.
As a child of the 90’s I learned the Chanukah story in many contexts, from the traditional religious school recounting of the miraculous oil to the memorable Shalom Sesame and Rugrats television specials. Even as an adult, latkes and sufganyiot deliciously fried in oil and playing dreidel are fun. But Chanukah is about more than just the small and mighty Maccabees’ defeat of the Greeks and the miracle of the oil lasting for eight nights instead of one. The story of Chanukah is also a reminder of the precious religious liberty that was denied to the Jews under King Antiochus and which Americans are so thankfully guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The story of Chanukah is not found in the Tanakh or the Mishnah; rather the obligation related to the lighting of the Chanukah candles is alluded to in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21a & b. The Apocryphal literature (Maccabee I&II) dictates that Antiochus waged war against King Ptolemy of Egypt and then entered Jerusalem “with a great multitude” and “proudly entered the Temple.” The Talmud tells us that the Greeks entered the sacred Temple and “defiled all the oils therein.” Antiochus sent his messengers around his kingdom and instructed the Jews to “profane the Sabbath and festival days,” “set up altars” and “leave their children uncircumcised.” The practical effect was a prohibition against the practice of Judaism under Antiochus.
The inability to worship peacefully and the desecration of the Temple incited a revolt that lasted two years until at last the Jews reclaimed the Temple. Judah, one of the five Maccabee brothers and the revolt’s leader, ordered that the Temple be cleansed and a new altar built. The Jews also needed oil to light the menorah and after searching the destroyed Temple they found only one small jug of oil, just enough for one night. But, as we all know, Neis Gadol Hayah Sham, a great miracle happened there and the oil burned for eight nights. As we recite the blessings over the Chanukiah, we recall the Maccabees’ celebration of victory over oppression.
Of course, the Maccabees and their compatriots were not the last Jews to experience religious oppression. From the 15th century’s Spanish Inquisition, that forced Jews to convert to Christianity or face expulsion, to the 20th century’s Holocaust, Jews have known all too well the dangers of being a religious minority. Even today, many Jewish communities in countries around the world tread carefully, afraid to publically worship or even identify as Jewish.
Thankfully, the American experience over the past 235 years has been different. American Jews are able to practice their faith without the threat of conversion, expulsion, revoked citizenship or imprisonment. The United States, founded by people descended from religious exiles, is rooted in the principle of religious liberty. After all, it is the Constitution’s First Amendment that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those words have meant that we as Jews have the same right to celebrate our religious traditions as do Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and every other religious faith that makes up the rich fabric of American society. (It has also protected those who choose to follow no faith tradition at all.) The experience of Canadian Jews has been similarly positive, owed in part to the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects freedom of conscience and religion.
Chanukah is not an overtly religious holiday—we tell the miraculous story, recite the Shehecheyanu and the blessings over the candles and gather with our families to celebrate. Chanukah (as well as Christmas and Kwanzaa that arrive around the same time), is a testament to the importance of the bold concept of the First Amendment and the practical impact of religious liberty on the lives of a nation’s people.
Unfortunately, over the years, there have been some who wish to weaken or remove the Constitution’s wall of separation between church and state. Some claim that America is a Christian nation and have sought to reintroduce official prayer in public schools, support private religious schools with taxpayer dollars, or teach children the Biblical story of creation in biology classes. But each of these diminishes the value of religious freedom that has made our country a beacon of liberty to the world. While we recall the story of the Maccabees with joy and laughter, we can never forget the true message of their struggle. Religious liberty and the freedom to practice our faith as we choose allow our traditions to flourish, free from government involvement. As we light the candles, let us recommit to defending those freedoms for ourselves and generations to come.