The Flame of Religious Freedom

by Rabbi Audrey Pollack, November 28, 2017

Chanukah is probably the most celebrated of all of the Jewish holidays. Many people enjoy it as a festive time to gather together with family and friends, eat latkes, spin dreidels, and light the menorah. Some people, Jews as well as gentiles, mistakenly think of Chanukah as the Jewish Christmas. But far from it. Chanukah is not a Jewish response to the Christmas season. The real meaning of Chanukah is about celebrating heroism, courage, and religious freedom. It is indeed ironic that this holiday, which is rooted in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of the practice of Judaism, has become an overwhelmingly secular, commercial holiday.

Our rabbis emphasize Chanukah’s specific message: our freedom to worship God and practice our beliefs without coercion from government. Chanukah teaches us about the dangers of government interference with religious practice and about the importance of religious liberty. Under King Antiochus, the Greek government forcibly imposed the worship of Greek gods, desecrating the Temple, and sacrificing pigs on the altar. Antiochus forbade the Jews from worshipping according to Jewish belief, banned the practice of circumcision, and used force to make Jews worship Greek gods.

What we celebrate on Chanukah is the response of the Jews, known as the Maccabees, who stood up for their Jewish way of life and refused to give in to the coercion of the Greeks. The second blessing we recite over the Chanukah lights gives thanks for the miracles God performed for our ancestors, recalling the celebration of the Maccabees when they were no longer oppressed by tyranny and were once again able to practice their faith and traditions.

So, the celebration of Chanukah is first and foremost a celebration of religious freedom. We celebrate by doing Jewish things: we study Torah, we sing songs in praise of God, and we joyfully recite prayers in celebration of that freedom. King Antiochus and his government forbade these things, so we celebrate by doing them.

As we remember and give thanks for what happened in ancient times, we also give thanks that we are blessed to live in a country that values religious freedom, allowing Jews and people of other faiths or no faith to worship or refrain from worship as they see fit. It is this policy of religious liberty that allows all Canadians to participate fully in our open, diverse, multicultural society.

As we light the lights of the Chanukah Menorah this year, let us make sure that the flame of religious freedom for all never goes out.

Chag Chanukah Sameach!
Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack

Filed under: Rabbi's Message

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