All Commentary
Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Religious Freedom Is What Chanukah Is All About

Chanukah is the story of believers in a persecuted faith winning the right to practice their religion.

There’s an obvious reason for Americans, Jewish or not, to appreciate Chanukah. Religious freedom is one of the founding principles of our Republic, and religious freedom is what Chanukah is all about.

The last part of that, however, is not so obviously true.

The story as I remember it from childhood could certainly be read as a tale of freedom. After the death of Alexander the Great, who had conquered Israel but left the Jewish religion in place, the Greeks set out to eradicate Judaism and force the Jews to worship their pagan gods. They forbade certain religious practices. They defiled the Temple. So the Jews, under the leadership of Judah the Maccabee, rose up in rebellion — and won. On the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, they rededicated the Temple. They found only enough ritual oil to burn for one day, but by a miracle, it lasted for eight. Therefore, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, Jews light the menorah for eight nights.

So, believers in a persecuted faith won the right to practice their religion. Isn’t that a triumph of religious freedom?

The Rebels Turn Oppressors

It wasn’t for those who believed in the Greek gods. And because being a Jew is a matter of ethnic heritage at least as much as it’s a matter of belief — I, for example, am an atheist, but I’m still a Jew — there’s no contradiction in saying some Jews did. Some may have abandoned Jewish traditions and taken up Greek practices to fit in with the rest of the empire or to obey oppressive laws, but some may have genuinely believed.

According to historian Steven Fine of Yeshiva University, the war the Maccabees fought wasn’t just a rebellion against the Seleucids — a foreign power with roots in the division of Alexander’s empire. It was also a civil war between those Jews who had accepted Hellenistic culture and those who had not. And, on top of it all, neither side was committed to religious freedom.

Tribal autonomy does not protect each person’s integrity by enabling us to live by our own beliefs. Only individual liberty does that. The sources for the story of the Maccabean war, Fine asserts, are the first and second books of Maccabees. Those books tell two different versions of a much more complex story than the one I was taught, a story that extends well beyond the rededication of the Temple and does not include the story of the oil. (Second Maccabees does include other events that cannot be credited without believing in the supernatural; in First Maccabees, however, the victories are won by men, whatever credit they or others might give God for helping them.)

And First Maccabees has the supposed heroes wrecking pagan altars and “forcibly circumcising” boys — that is, destroying another faith’s places of worship and violently imposing on people’s bodies a mark of the Jewish religion. Judah the Maccabee himself is described as going “through the towns of Judah eliminating the irreligious from them.”

So it’s reasonable to call the Maccabees’ victory, insofar as it was against a foreign empire and perhaps even insofar as it was against Greek culture, a triumph for the collective self-determination of the Jewish people. But as the Maccabees’ attempt to suppress paganism — following the pagans’ attempt to suppress Judaism — shows, the individual can be oppressed by neighbors of his own tribe as well as by a foreign monarch. Collective self-determination does not mean individual liberty.

And it is the individual’s religious liberty, not the tribe’s autonomy, that the American constitutional tradition protects — and that is worth protecting. It is the freedom of every person to examine the arguments for and against theological and moral claims and reach his or her own conclusions that enables us to pursue the truth in these matters. We would scarcely be allowed to do this if we had to follow the religions of our respective ancestors or follow the dictates of one central authority. Tribal autonomy does not protect each person’s integrity by enabling us to live by our own beliefs. Only individual liberty does that.

Lights Against the Anti-Human

So is Chanukah devoid of worthwhile meaning for those of us who don’t think the religion the Maccabees fought for is true? Should even those who believe in the God of my fathers view the holiday as strictly about one faith and one people, with nothing to say to anyone else?

No. Hatred of the Jews goes back approximately as long as there have been Jews to hate. It is a pervasive presence in Jewish history and mythology. Sometimes, the enemies of the Jews have defined them by religion, and sometimes they have defined us by race.

To all anti-Semites throughout history and in the present day, the lights of Chanukah give a reply. In either case, there is something fundamentally anti-human about anti-Semites. The essence of living a human life is thinking and acting on the basis of one’s thoughts. To use force to suppress a religion is to set oneself against the freedom to determine one’s own beliefs — that is, to think. To murder people on account of their race is to demean what makes them human and what makes them individuals, reducing them to members of their tribe and condemning them for that.

Today, the Chanukah lights shine against that darkness. For whatever Judah the Maccabee did wrong, celebrating his rededication of the Temple is celebrating a defeat for anti-Semitism.

And Chanukah, more than most Jewish holidays, emphasizes publicizing that celebration: Jewish religious law says the menorah is to be placed where people can see it — if it is safe. But a famous photograph shows one in a window opposite a building with a Nazi flag; even or especially when it is not safe, the menorah is a powerful symbol. To the Nazis, to the Seleucids, and to all anti-Semites throughout history and in the present day, the lights of Chanukah give a reply: Your empires have fallen. Your religions have died out or given up hating the Jews. We are still here.