Friday, December 3, 2010

Hanukkah: Shining a Light on Freedom of Religion

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, falls on December 1st this year.  The Festival of Lights, originating in the celebration of the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greek Empire and the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE, has come to symbolize many eternal and universal themes over the centuries, particularly themes of hope and creating light in dark times.  In American life today, it is not unusual for these eternal and universal messages to be blended with contemporary concerns.  
So, for example, a Jewish environmental group ( launched a CFL light bulb campaign a few years ago, re-reading the ancient story of the miracle of the little jar of oil found in the desecrated Temple by the Maccabees that lasted for eight nights instead of the expected one.  

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism draws lines of connection between the themes of Hanukkah and many contemporary social issues, urging us to use some of our time and resources to go beyond the donut-, latke-eating, and present-giving norms, and see the festival as inspiration to make a difference on issues of economic justice, and children’s issues, among others (

This year, a press release about another connection between the Festival and contemporary issues caught my attention.  In the time of the Maccabees, there had been many years of cultural assimilation, with Jews in the land of Israel absorbing and incorporating aspects of Syrian-Greek culture.  The rebellion came when there was a shift in Syrian-Greek perspective, and traditional Jewish practices and rituals became forbidden.  The Maccabees were fighting to restore their freedom to practice their religion.  While the story is more complicated than that, the theme remains all too relevant today.

This November, former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, launched a global education program ‘Face to Faith.’  In a press release from his Faith Foundation, he explained: “Face to Faith connects students aged 11-16 from different schools in 15 countries across the world via video-conferencing and a secure website. The program aims to break down stereotypes and broaden horizons by engaging students of different cultures, religions and beliefs in discussing global issues from different perspectives.”  A number of schools across the USA are already involved.  But I was also encouraged and moved to learn that Mr. Blair is launching the program in Israel on the first night of Hanukkah at an event at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, along with their Muslim counterparts from the El Gazali School in Um el Fahm.

What an inspiring message for us all this year at Hanukkah!  The respect for religious freedom necessitates our interacting with each other and learning about each other.  Every Spring for the past three years, I’ve been involved in a program that brings Jewish, Christian and Muslim teens together to learn more about each other.  This coming year, on April 3rd, the Council of Churches Bridge Building Ministry will be running their Annual Youth Conference (contact to learn more).

As we light the candles each night of Hanukkah this year, think of another faith group that you wish to know more about.  Commit to reading something online ( is a wonderful resource), find a local class, visit another place of worship, invite a faith speaker into your community, or organize an interfaith dialogue program between members of your community and that of another faith.
May the light of your faith shine brightly and contribute to a more tolerant, compassionate, and loving world.
Happy Hanukkah!

This article was published this week in several local town newspapers in Fairfield County by the Hersam Acorn consortium.

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