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Faces on Faith: History of Hanukkah

By Staff | Dec 14, 2012

Rabbi Selwyn Geller

Temple Bat Yam of the Islands is the only Sanibel congregation that celebrates Hanukkah. I thought I would share a few of the ironies of the holiday with you.

The holiday commemorates the Jewish prohibition against idolatry and its rededication to the free exercise of religion and civil rights. The Seleucid King, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned over Jerusalem in the second century BC, had turned the Jewish temple into a pagan shrine and wanted to be recognized as the divinity of his kingdom. The Jews rebelled and fought a guerilla-war and won. They won their sovereign freedom back. The value of religious freedom to human development is critical and unaccountable.

The first irony was that the victorious Hasmonean family did what Antiochus did and recombined politics and religion under their rule. The Rabbis “punished” them by excluding the books of the Maccabees from the collected writings in the Hebrew edition of the Bible, known as the Masoretic edition.

Politics came under the people’s authority and, perhaps, their desire for King David. Judaism as a religion came under priestly and later rabbinic authority. The Septuagint, a Greek edition of the Hebrew Bible, included the books of the Maccabees that praised the Hasmonean Family.

The irony taught us about the dangerous consequences of integrating politics and religion in the Holy Land and Seleucid Kingdom, in Greece and Rome and in the nations that followed them. The United States and France separated politics and religion in the 18th Century. The United States Constitution’s Article VI separated politics and religion before the First Amendment was ratified.

The second irony is that the religious and social influence of Christmas in Christian communities has affected the celebration of Hanukkah in the Jewish community. It has turned its celebration into a major holiday in contrast to the minor holiday that it actually is. It illustrates an important principal enunciated by Krister Stendahl, Dean of the Harvard Divinity School.

“Holy envy” is the envy of other people’s faiths or religious ideals. It is a source of competition, not cooperation.

There is no reason for religious competition. Religious ideals are free. We can have the same ideals and different faiths and rejoice in them together. On the other hand, politics are about biological, economic and social needs. There is eternal competition for them. They have to be kept flexible and open-ended to enable nations to function as efficiently and effectively as possible.

We rejoice at this time and hope that our celebration will influence our nation to give us reasons to rejoice in health and safety with good morals in the years ahead.