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Chanukah, Where the Jews Lit Candles Rather than Celebrate War

December 9, 2012 3:01 am 1 comment

Israeli soldiers pray at the Western Wall. Photo: Wikipedia.

Chanuka 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. Chanuka 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 by 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 Chanuka 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. Chanuka 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.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, an award-winning TV and radio host, and is currently writing a new book on relationships entitled Kosher Lust. Next month he will publish The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

1 Comment

  • Unfortunately the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 was short lived
    as Wiki concisely puts it:
    “In 1650, the Puritans revolted against the proprietary government. They set up a new government prohibiting both Catholicism and Anglicanism. In March 1655, the 2nd Lord Baltimore sent an army under Governor William Stone to put down this revolt. Near Annapolis, his Roman Catholic army was decisively defeated by a Puritan army in the Battle of the Severn. The Puritan revolt lasted until 1658, when the Calvert family regained control and re-enacted the Toleration Act.
    The Puritan revolutionary government persecuted Maryland Catholics during its reign. Mobs burned down all the original Catholic churches of southern Maryland.”
    Toleration and acceptance is a social process -it evolves.But it cannot procede without the protections of law.

    We should never forget that besides restrictions based on gender,race,and property..among other there were restrictions based on religion From Wikipedia
    In several states in the U.S. after the Declaration of Independence, Jews, Quakers or Catholics were denied voting rights and/or forbidden to run for office.[5] The Delaware Constitution of 1776 stated that “Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of trust, before taking his seat, or entering upon the execution of his office, shall (…) also make and subscribe the following declaration, to wit: I, A B. do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.”.[6] This was repealed by article I, section 2 of the 1792 Constitution: “No religious test shall be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, under this State.”.[7] The 1778 Constitution of the State of South Carolina stated that “No person shall be eligible to sit in the house of representatives unless he be of the Protestant religion”,[8] the 1777 Constitution of the State of Georgia (art. VI) that “The representatives shall be chosen out of the residents in each county (…) and they shall be of the Protestent (sic) religion”.[9] In Maryland, voting rights and eligibility were extended to Jews in 1828.[10
    The equality tha for which people have fought for generations may be lost if we remain unaware of the constant erosion of the secular basis of our public institutions by forces on the Christian Right.

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