Hanukah For All Jews And Some Muslims – OpEd


“Had your Lord wanted, all the people on earth would have believed (the same religion). So will you force people to believe?” (Qur’an 10:99) thus “there is no compulsion in religion…”  (Qur’an 2:256) especially for school children.

Over the last three or four generations, the eight day festival of Hanukah has increasingly become an important holiday for Jewish families in Europe, and in North and South America. This is especially true for Jewish and recently for other minority religion children. 

For many centuries during the Middle Ages, Jewish children went to Jewish schools, lived in Jewish neighborhoods, and had very little contact with non-Jewish children. This all changed in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially after WW2. 

Jewish children, from an early age, now became increasingly immersed in the national and religious culture of the Christian world around them. Their natural tendency to want to fit in led many Jewish children to desire to copy non-traditional ways in general, and Christmas practices in particular. 

December became the month when Jewish children felt left out if they did not participate in everyone’s Christmas celebrations; or had mixed conflicting emotions if they did. Hanukah, with its celebration of the value of standing up for your own religious freedom to celebrate your own religious traditions, became an important event in the education of Jewish children to be proud of their religious heritage.

All of this can be easily understood by first, second and third generation Muslim families living as a small minority in the West, whose ancestors grew up in Muslim majority countries. 

In addition, recent attempts to outlaw circumcision in California, Germany, Sweden and other places, by people who think it is barbaric, follow the path of the Syrian Greek king whose decree outlawing circumcision was the final outrage that led to the revolt of the Maccabees. 

The main ancient sources that discuss Hanukah mention the 25th of Kislev as the date on which Jerusalem Temple worship resumed, exactly three years after its defilement (1 Maccabees 4:54; 2 Maccabees 10:5; Josephus, Antiquities 12:7.6). This connects to a significant date from Prophet Haggai, who addressed the first generation of returnees from Babylon to Yehud (Judea) during the year 520 B.C.E. Haggai encouraged the Judean leaders to rebuild the temple on the 21st day of the seventh month (Haggai 2:1), namely at the end of Sukkot, the most widely celebrated Temple holiday during Biblical times. 

Prophet Haggai’s contemporary, Prophet Zechariah, also urges the people to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple, and he too mentions the day of foundation, although without a specific date (8:9). In one of his visions Prophet Zechariah sees a golden menorah and two olive trees that pour oil into its pipes (chapter  4). The vision anticipates the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and is the first and only Biblical text in which the menorah stands as a symbol of the temple. 

Although the menorah does not appear as an element of the holiday in 1 and 2 Maccabees, it became central to the later post Temple understanding of Hanukah. This explains why Zechariah 4 was chosen by the rabbis as the additional Biblical reading on the Sabbath that falls during Hanukah.

As I celebrate these Hanukah lights of freedom today, I pray that I and my fellow Jews here and in Israel shall not become a source of suffering for others, persecuting others because of their faith, and never become an instrument of hate. May all of us become sources of inspiring light in our world’s dark spots. 

I also hope that both Jews and Muslims will also remember all oppressed religious communities, such as the Rohingya people of Myanmar, the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang Province, and the brave Muslim woman of Iran who are protesting the cruelty of Iran’s morality police, and have suffered hundreds of martyrs: because Hanukah teaches the very important lesson that faith and hope in the long run overcome nasty politics and hate filled politicians.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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