12/27/2008

IV: Chanukah as the Festival of Religious Freedom

This celebration is also characteristic of America, but as a more religious expression than simply the Jewish Christmas (i.e., in American Jewish religious communities that embrace American values). It tends to downplay the military aspect of the holiday, and instead emphasizes the Jewish “struggle” to maintain an identity in the face of a prevailing culture and to win religious freedom.

The theme of Jewish freedom of worship is certainly present in various midrashim that describe the decrees against the practice of Judaism (Rosh Chodesh, circumcision, Torah study, etc.) and against belief in the God of the Jews (kitvu al keren ha-shor…). It appears in the al ha-nisim paragraph as well (“to make them forget Your Torah and transgress Your beloved commandments”). Other compositions seem to indicate that Judaism was in actual danger of disappearance due to the onslaught of Hellenism. In fact, the entire theme of rededication of the Temple, from which the holiday derives its name, is quite possibly the historical reason for the institution of the festival.

Of course, the American version tends to superimpose 20th Century American ideas of religious identity and freedom onto the 2nd Century BCE, but hey, we try to keep it warm and fuzzy.

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