For the week ending 24 December 2005 / 23 Kislev 5766

Freedom of/from Religion

by Rabbi Mendel Weinbach zt'l
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Freedom of religion is certainly a privilege for which we all have to be thankful.

Chanukah is the perfect occasion for celebrating this freedom.

In the special “Al Hanissim” prayer that we add on Chanukah to our regular daily prayers and grace after meals we recall what the wicked Hellenist Greeks tried to inflict upon our ancestors. They made an effort to force assimilation upon them by causing them to forget the Torah and to follow this by abandoning their fulfillment of the G-dly commands.

We thank G-d for enabling Matityahu, the Kohen Gadol, and his courageous sons to lead a small band of faithful Jews to achieve a miraculous victory over superior forces and to thus regain freedom to practice their religion.

This triumph over human enemies to achieve spiritual security was followed by a triumph over natural limitations in the miracle of the Menorah. Regaining control of the Beit Hamikdash, the triumphant Macabees rushed to perform the sacred service of lighting the Menorah. The enemy, however, had managed to desecrate the entire supply of olive oil in the area by affecting it with ritual contamination. One miracle then followed another. A small vessel of concealed olive oil with the seal of the Kohen Gadol was discovered in a spot which escaped enemy eyes, and, although it had only enough in it to fuel the Menorah for one night, the oil burned for eight nights until a new supply of pure oil would be available.

We thus see that when our ancestors gained freedom of religion the first thing they did was to utilize it for practicing their religion – and their efforts were blessed with success.

How does this relate to the situation of our times?

On the one hand, Jews in Eretz Yisrael and throughout the world must be thankful to G-d that we are not subservient to any enemies like those Hellenist Greeks who used their power to turn us away from our religion. But what are millions of our brothers and sisters doing with this great opportunity? Is there less assimilation today than when it was imposed on us? Or are we exploiting freedom of religion as an escape hatch for freedom from religion? Here is how Emanuel Ottolenghi, writing in the November 23rd issue of the Jerusalem Post, described the situation of European Jewry: “The prosperity and privilege characterizing this golden Jewish age has coincided with perhaps the greatest level of Jewish illiteracy in recorded Jewish history. Our great success and integration has come at the expense of our identity and awareness of our heritage and destiny as a people. And while in the past assimilation, the cost of success in Christian societies, was forced on Jews as the inevitable price of acceptance, today Jews who snub their roots do so by choice.”

What this observer says about European Jewry can unfortunately be extended to secular Jewry everywhere.

As we celebrate Chanukah as a gift of freedom of religion, it is our hope and prayer that there will be no need for Jews to be awakened to their identity and their destiny through a rise in the anti-Semitism which has been the catalyst for such soul-searching throughout history.

The way back to our roots must follow the route chartered by the Hellenist Greeks – only with an opposite goal. We must first overcome “the greatest level of Jewish illiteracy in recorded history” by introducing more and more Jews to the wealth of Torah study. This will inevitably lead them to the fulfillment of G-d’s commands which is the essence of religious freedom.

In conclusion, the message of Chanukah is to show our appreciation of our freedom of religion by practicing it rather than escaping from it. Only thus will we merit to rekindle the menorah of a rebuilt Beit Hamikdash and fulfill our mission of being a “light unto the nations”.


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