Before we begin tonight, I must ask you take a moment of silence in memory of the children and adults in Newtown, Connecticut who were murdered earlier today. At times of shocking atrocities like this, which we have experienced too many times in recent years, there is really no response that will make sense of the tragedy. I ask that you pray for the families of all who were killed and wounded, and that perhaps at some point we may find a way to prevent such horrible acts from taking place ever again.
May the families of these innocents find consolation and comfort in God, and may we find a way to work to prevent such horrors from recurring in our land, and in our world.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Chanukah Same'iach!
If you are anything like me, you have been eating latkes and sufganiyot for 7 nights and days now, and after all the fried food and parties it's time to begin to think about cutting back on the caloric intake... Unfortunately, there are other celebrations this time of year that we participate in, and often they also have food to eat, I'm told. The danger is that what we will take from this holiday season may turn out to be nothing but several extra pounds around the middle of our bodies...
And that would be a shame. Because for Jews and non-Jews, the central message of Hanukkah is powerful and important, and it is especially relevant all year-round, here in America and everywhere in the world.
At its heart, Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom, the right of conscience, the ability to choose what we believe in, and how we wish to express that belief. When our ancestors, the Maccabee-led Jews of the 2nd century BCE fought against a far more powerful oppressor to assert their right to believe in one God and to serve that God as they saw fit, they struck a powerful blow for religious freedom for everyone. The Seleucid Syrian-Greek Hellenistic Empire insisted that everyone worship the deified king as though he were a god, an obligation to practice the state-approved religion. When the rebel Jews overthrew the enemy they did so in order to pray and practice as they believed. They chose to fight, and suffer, and often die for that belief—but even more, they fought for the right to hold those beliefs, and for others to do so as well.
Of course, throughout history, we Jews have often been denied the right to worship God and study Torah, and we have often been forced to fight, and even more often to die, for our belief in one God. We are very well suited to judge which societies truly respect the right of conscience, and allow their members to pray and practice as their hearts and minds inspire them to do so. Those places that allowed us to be Jews freely are remembered well: ancient Persia, the Netherlands after the Expulsion from Spain, the Ottoman Empire during the same period, the colony of Rhode Island here in America, founded for religious freedom, France in the days of the Revolution and under Napoleon. But there aren't too many other examples we can celebrate. Except for America.
Even France didn't always stand up to its own ideals. They passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789 that guarantees that, "No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law." But we Jews also know that over a century later France was the setting for the infamous Dreyfuss trials and their anti-Semitic mobs chanting "Death to the Jews."
So it is America that best reflects the ideal of freedom of worship. And it is this aspect of Hanukkah that resonates so perfectly with our American ideology, if not always our practice. America was created by people seeking economic opportunity and the absence of domination by powerful aristocracies. But it was also founded by a great number of people whose principal motivation was religious freedom, the ability to pray as they wished, from the Puritans of Massachusetts—who were fleeing persecution in England—to the Catholics in Maryland, whose governor, Lord Baltimore, drafted a Toleration Act that read, "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."
There were many bumps along the road to religious freedom in America, of course: the Puritans soon created their own kind of theocratic community, the Catholics lost power in Maryland and toleration was repealed, and Quakers were persecuted and fled existing colonies to found Pennsylvania. But the tendency toward inclusion, and away from the state forcing religion on anyone or prohibiting the practice of religious freedom was gradually established.
In 1779 Thomas Jefferson, echoing philosopher John Locke, wrote the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom, saying that:
"[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
And there is a reason that his friend James Madison wrote in the Bill of Rights to our Constitution that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
It is sadly true that freedom of religion has not always been fully supported by the citizens of these United States: the founder of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith, was murdered by an anti-Latter Day Saints mob in Missouri in 1844. For many years we Jews were subject to a great deal of anti-Semitism, both actively hostile and of the more genteel variety, and one Jew, Leo Frank of Atlanta, was even lynched mostly just for being Jewish back in 1915. But the official and legal guarantees of religious freedom that are now enshrined in American law and tradition have helped make this a country officially and truly dedicated to the protection of personal conscience and conviction, and that has helped Jews hugely, as it has helped many religious minorities.
Hanukkah comes annually to remind us that freedom of religion is a critical component of any just society, and that it is worth defending at nearly any cost. The truth is that free societies are the places where we Jews have flourished, and where all religious minorities have flourished to the benefit of the society in which we have lived. Freedom of religion, thought, and conscience are not only ethically good, they are good for the country that protects those freedoms. Smart people want to believe and worship as they choose, and having that freedom is a crucial component of fostering a vibrant, diverse society.
And we have the Maccabees to thank for that, and the holiday of Hanukkah to remind us of just how precious that freedom is.
So happy Hanukkah—and when you enjoy that freedom to pray and practice as you choose—or to not pray or practice as anyone else demands—thank those Hasmonean Jews in this season, and all year, for the right to do so.
Chag Chanukah Samei'ach; and may we all celebrate and publicly affirm the critical freedom of conscience now in this season of light, and throughout the year.