A Meditation on Hanukkah and Religious Freedom

By: Allen Hertzke

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This Hanukkah is particularly special because Rabbi David Saperstein, the first Jewish ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was just confirmed by the Senate (December 12), right on the eve of the Festival of Lights. Perhaps we could say he was the first Hanukkah gift of 2014. A veteran of global religious freedom advocacy, Saperstein has served as Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, so he is intimately schooled in the issues and challenges of his new position. We wish him Mazel Tov!

A time of sacred memory for Jews, Hanukkah also represents a timeless account of the quest for religious freedom and the dire consequences of its denial.  Indeed, the scriptural account in the Book of Maccabees richly evokes contemporary challenges to religious liberty, illustrates themes from diverse religious traditions, and echoes findings of cutting edge global research.   
The trouble began when the Seleucid king Antiochus sought to unite his sprawling empire by forcing everyone to adopt the same Hellenistic faith: “Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs” (1 Maccabees 1). Like so many rulers and cliques today, Antiochus thought he could annul the pluralistic nature of religious identities and obligations. 

Big mistake. Just as predicted by Grim and Finke in The Price of Freedom Denied and Toft, Philpott, and Shah in God’s Century, the effort to enforce religious uniformity produced the opposite: repression, dissension, and turmoil. For Antiochus it ultimately sparked an open revolt by Jews that left the king’s reign in tatters. Upon hearing that his armies in Judah had been routed, he “became sick from grief, because things had not turned out for him as he had planned.” Why had he been plunged into such distress when he was once “kind and beloved in power”? The King answers his own question: “But now I remember the evils I did in Jerusalem…I know that it is because of this that these evils have come upon me” (1 Maccabees 6).   

In Maccabees we hear refrains as old as recorded history and fresh as the latest headlines: “You cannot be who you are; you must become one of us, or be ruled by us.” Islamic State militants tell Yazidis they must convert or die; Iran decrees Baha’is illegal in the land of their origin; China forces Christians to worship in secret; Jews face rising anti-Semitism in Europe; and North Koreans must venerate their “Great Leader” as a God or be sent to the gulags. 

The always repressive, often disastrous effort to force religious uniformity violates human nature and religious wisdom. As we learn in the Qur’an, Sura 58, had God willed he could have created one people with one faith, but instead he created many peoples so they could “vie one with another in virtue.” This healthy competition, as Anthony Gill reminds us in his research, is a far better recipe for a ruler seeking a stable and prosperous country. 

The lessons of Maccabees also vividly spotlight the dignity of human conscience. Consider the evocative story of Eleazar. A noble scribe “advanced in age,” Eleazar refused the decree to eat pork—the King’s way of signifying the Hebrew renunciation of their “customs.” This seemed like no big deal to outsiders, but Eleazar insisted that he would rather welcome “death with honor than life with pollution.” So some friendly officials and acquaintances came up with a remedy to avoid unpleasantness. They proposed that he secretly bring kosher meat, substitute it for the pork, and thus pretend to honor the King’s degree. Eleazar responds with an eloquent avowal that such “pretense is not worthy of our time of life,” that he must set “a noble example” for the young of devotion to our “revered and holy laws” (2 Maccabees 6). He recognized the out for what it was: a ruse. 

Eleazar’s story illuminates the hegemonic impulse of states, ancient and modern, to force people to choose between transcendent obligations and civic capacities. Often the results are tragic; sometimes farcical. Consider the case of The Little Sisters of the Poor, a mendicant order of nuns who selflessly minister to the elderly poor. Officials of the US federal government have mandated, under threat of heavy fines, that the nuns violate their vows and provide contraceptives and abortifacients in their health plans. Because the feds do not deem the Order “religious enough” to qualify for an exemption, they seem intent on mimicking the Seleucid officials by offering the nuns a bureaucratic out: Just sign this simple form attesting to your objections to these drugs and we will absolve you from complicity in their provision by your health provider. Like Eleazar, the sisters can spot a ruse unworthy of their dignity. 

As Jews celebrate the miraculous lamps that burned for eight days to purify the temple after its desecration, we all can ponder anew the lessons of faith and human dignity. As humans we all seek to “be who we are,” to live according to our ultimate, most sacred obligations. As Antiochus learned the hard way, we cannot enjoy that right unless we grant it to others. That is why religious freedom uniquely addresses the crucible of the twenty-first century: living with our difference in a shrinking world. 

Allen Hertzke is David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma and faculty fellow in religious freedom for OU’s Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage. 

This piece was originally authored on December 22, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/5/a-meditation-on-hanukkah-and-religious-freedom