Chanukah is Judaism’s most universal holiday with deep resonance for all Americans.
Our great country was founded by refugees who escaped religious persecution in Europe and were prepared to cross an ocean in order to found a colony where they could worship as they chose. Indeed, freedom of religion applied as a principle of colonial government goes back to the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 which provided that “No person or persons…shall from henceforth be any waies troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.” By 1777 Thomas Jefferson himself had drafted The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of only three achievements Jefferson instructed be put on his tombstone.
For Jews, however, practicing our religion has never been as straightforward. Throughout history we have had to fight and die simply to observe our faith. Chanukah represents a triumphant moment in the second century BCE when that struggle was victorious.
After Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, he allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions. But a century later one of his successors, Antiochus IV, massacred the Jews, banned the practice of Judaism, and desecrated the holy Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs on the altar. The Priestly family of Matisyahu the Hasmonean, led his courageous son Judah Maccabee, revolted and miraculously defeated one of the world’s greatest military powers. They purified the Temple and relit its candelabra, the menorah. A further miracle occurred when the special oil necessary, of which there was only enough for a day, lasted eight. Ever since, the Menorah is lit in homes and public squares as a universally regarded symbol of religious freedom.
But as America continues to fight wars abroad there is an even deeper resonance with the holiday.
The ancient world glorified men at arms. Heroes were those who could pulverize their enemies on the battlefield. Their names – Agamemnon, Achilles, Hannibal, and Caesar – remain legend, both in myth and history. Walk through the streets of Rome and you will be electrified by the site of ancient monuments to generals and battles, from the Arch of Titus, celebrating the slaughter of the Jews in the years 66-70, to the Arch of Constantine to Trajan’s column. The glory of war does not end there but stretches all the way to the modern world with European Kings and princes continuing to even marry in military uniform, as did Prince William in his nuptials with Kate Middleton. Great men are those who perform heroic feats of military daring and win grandeur by vanquishing their foes.
The Bible, however, with its vision of men one day beating swords into ploughshares and its promise of a future of eternal peace, sees war as savagery in every case but self-defense. The men of Arthur’s roundtable may be born for adventure. But the Biblical knight of faith is born for service.
On Chanukah the Jews – the people of the book, not the sword – are forced to take up arms to defend their right to worship G-d according to their conscience. They score a stunning military victory against the successor armies to the world’s greatest conqueror. And how do they celebrate? Not by erecting a single victory arch, staging a parade, or slaughtering their captured foes in public, a favorite among the jeering Roman masses. Rather, they rededicate G-d’s temple and light the candles of the menorah to demonstrate the human capacity to bring light to a world made dark with violence and bigotry, a tradition carried forth till the present day in Jewish homes and public squares everywhere.
Today Israel is falsely accused of being a militaristic state that tramples on the rights of others. But walk the length and breadth of the Jewish state and you will find holy sites and ancient ruins, memorials to dead soldiers and commemorations for victims of terror. The one thing you will never find is a single celebratory arch – either ancient or modern – commemorating a military victory. Even when, in 1967, Israel pulled off one of the most spectacular military victories of modern times, defeating three Arab nations with ten times the soldiers hell-bent on its destruction, Israel never celebrated the victory. Chanukah sums up the Jewish attitude toward war: you fight only when you have to, never when you want to, and whatever the result, you never rejoice but mostly cry. War is a necessary evil. Only in peace is there glory to be won.
King David was Judaism’s greatest warrior. Today he is remembered, however, for the beautiful Psalms he sang to G-d with harp and lyre. His wish was to build G-d a Temple in Jerusalem but the Almighty refused. He has shed blood in battle, even though it is was to protect his people from slaughter.
The lesson for America? We fight because we have an obligation to stop the bad guys from slaughtering the innocent. But we never revel in the fight. Rather, we pray for our brave men and women in uniform – living torches of freedom – to come home and brighten our lives with their luminous and warm hearts.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” was the London Times Preacher of the Year at the Millennium and is the author, most recently, of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself. (Wiley) In January he will publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.