Chanukah, Jerusalem and Religious Freedom

Today, Chanukah is often taught in the American Jewish community as a holiday celebrating the value of religious freedom. On the side of evil: Hellenism and its attempt to quash minority groups and their practices; on the side of good: resistance against oppressive regimes, and standing up for our own rights as Jews to practice our Judaism freely.

You probably know the outline of the Chanukah story.  To recap (with a nice summary taken from myjewishlearning.com -- click here to read the rest of the article), here's the basic backdrop:

In 168 BCE, the ruler of the Syrian kingdom, Antiochus Ephiphanes IV, stepped up his campaign to quash Judaism, so that all subjects in his vast empire -- which included the Land of Israel -- would share the same culture and worship the same gods.  He marched into Jerusalem, vandalized the Temple, erected an idol on the altar, and desecrated its holiness with the blood of swine.  Decreeing that studying Torah, observing the Sabbath, and circumcising Jewish boys were punishable by death, he sent Syrian overseers and soldiers to villages throughout Judea to enforce the edicts and force Jews to engage in idol worship.

We all know what happened next: Mattathias and his five sons (Jonathan, Simon, Judah, Eleazar, and Yohanan) decided to fight back. This family gathered a ragtag army and fled to the wooded Judean wilderness to begin a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Seleucid army.  Ultimately the Maccabees (as they came to be known) won a victory, reclaiming the Temple and restoring proper worship there with the rekindling of the menorah.  

Today, Chanukah is often taught in the American Jewish community as a holiday celebrating the value of religious freedom.  On the side of evil: Hellenism and its attempt to quash minority groups and their practices; on the side of good: resistance against oppressive regimes, and standing up for our own rights as Jews to practice our Judaism freely.

It's not too big a leap to extrapolate from there that it's also our role as Jews to protect other minorities from harm and persecution. Over the past week, this theme has been the storyline behind so much international news. Will Pope Francis mention the word "Rohingya"? (Yes, ultimately, but not in his speech in Myanmar.)  Will the U.S. Supreme Court uphold the current administration's travel ban, colloquially known as a "Muslim ban"?  (Yes, unfortunately.) Each of these stories has huge implications, as the world continues to struggle today with religious freedom and the status of minority groups across so many societies.

This morning's headline news -- like the Chanukah story -- puts the city of Jerusalem back in the spotlight. Trump has now announced a plan to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While it's true that Jerusalem functions as Israel's capitol city (after all, that is where the Knesset meets), for nearly 70 years, international consensus has kept embassies at bay, awaiting a more permanent resolution to the questions of Jerusalem's status.  

Yesterday, my friend Yehuda Kurtzer (who works for the Shalom Hartman Institute and spends a lot of time thinking about the relationship between American and Israeli Jews, and also happens to be the son of a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel) posted: "I think it is important to connect the dots between the news of SCOTUS' upholding the Muslim Ban and the timing of this announcement on the status quo of Jerusalem, as they are tied together by Trump's core ideological commitment to Islamaphobia throughout his campaign and afterwards. ...  I believe that this administration wants to bait an intifada as a means of coaxing into public the image of the violent Muslim that affirms their domestic and foreign policy agenda."  If Yehuda's analysis is correct, then this move is not only reckless and purposefully provocative, but also immoral and insidious.

As we prepare for our holiday this week, I will be thinking about the lessons that Chanukah comes to teach us about religious freedom and minority rights, and also its caution to us about the tyranny and oppression that go hand-in-hand with attempts to impose a single monolithic culture on a society. 

At Kavana, we continue to work towards building interfaith community partnerships, in order to strengthen our understanding of one another's traditions and to protect the rights and dignity of all.  We and other Seattle congregations (Jewish, Christian and Muslim) are partnering with Kids4Peace to educate youth from different backgrounds and lay foundations for peace work, both here in America and between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. Lately, our Living Room Learning group has expressed an interest in learning some sections of the Quran to increase our own exposure and understanding -- so stay tuned for a new learning series to that effect in early 2018! And, as always, we will continue to speak out against anti-Muslim hate speech (even when it's coming from the president's own Twitter account!), and to support refugees and immigrants of all backgrounds who are making this country their home.

With prayers that the values embedded in our Chanukah celebration will help illuminate the world for people of all backgrounds,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum