On each day of Hanukah, the Festival of Freedom, I think of the many desperate Tunisians who set themselves on fire in an act of protest, following the example of 26-year-old fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in 2010 led to the downfall of Tunisia’s dictator of 23 years.
Bouazizi’s public suicide unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings and a decade of crackdowns and civil wars across the region. But Tunisia now has more civil liberties and freedom of expression than it had before; although elsewhere in the Arab world the suffering has been enormous. How will it be remembered by future generations? As a spark of fire or as a tragic mistake?
The oppression of Judaism by Antiochus IV, the Syrian Greek king, was the first known attempt at suppressing a minority religion, but unfortunately not the last. Other well known attempts were the three century long Roman persecution of Christianity, and the persecution of Muhammad and his followers by the majority of pagan Arabs of Makkah.
All three religions emerged from their varying periods of persecution stronger than ever, and this is the ongoing spiritual lesson of the Hanukah lamp that once lit by faithful believers, filled with hope and trust in God; lasts longer than anyone else thinks possible.
In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV invaded Judea to put in power a pro Syrian high Priest. As the ancient Jewish historian Josephus relates, “The king came upon the Jews with a great army, took their city by force, slew a great multitude of those that favored Egypt, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple [erecting an idol in it that looked like himself, and thus] put a stop to the daily offerings [to God] for three years and six months.”
When the Temple in Jerusalem was looted and services stopped and most Jews boycotted the Temple. Then the King banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the Temple. This provoked a large-scale revolt.
The Second Book of Maccabees (6:3-11)relates the terrible details: ‘Harsh and utterly grievous was the onslaught of evil. The Syrian Greeks filled the Temple with debauchery and reveling. They also brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit. The altar was covered with abominable offerings (pigs) which were forbidden by the Torah. A man could neither keep the Sabbath, nor observe the feasts of his fathers, or admit to being a Jew.”
“At the suggestion of Ptolemy a decree was issued to the neighboring Greek cities, that they should adopt the same policy toward the Jews and make them partake of the sacrifices, and should slay those who did not choose to change over to Greek customs. One could see, therefore, the misery that had come upon them.”
“For example, two women were brought in for having circumcised their children. These women were publicly paraded about the city, with their (dead) babies hung at their breasts, then were hurled down headlong from the wall. Others who had assembled in near by caves, to observe the Sabbath day secretly, were betrayed and were all burned together, because their piety kept them from defending themselves, in view of their regard for that most holy (Sabbath) day.”
Thus Hanukah also celebrates the first time that a religion was forced to fight for religious freedom and religious pluralism. But the Greeks were polytheists and only monotheists are supposed to be narrow minded fanatics, according to anti-religious atheists. This false belief is wrong because it was Greek philosophers who first formulated the concept that ‘truth’ was an absolute, unchanging and universal entity; and thus truth must be what mathematicians call a zero sum game.
In a zero sum game any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture; somehow diminishes my own. This was the result of the influence of Greek philosophy’s emphasis on the logic of the excluded middle. Something is either true or it is false. There is no other option. If two propositions contradicted one another, one or both of them must be false.
This would mean that if my religion is true, yours must be false. In modern terms, light could not be both a particle and a wave at the same time. Yet we now have been enlightened and know that light is indeed both a particle and a wave at the same time, depending how you observe it.
Things did not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion which they claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired.
Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own sacred scriptures are Divinely inspired; and believe in nothing but their own skepticism. They use the same kinds of explanations to understand a revealed religion that they would use to explain secular history and literature.
As a Reform Rabbi I follow a different model. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other monotheistic scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own scripture. So we should think of revelation not as a zero sum game like tennis, but as a multiple win co-operative sport like mountain climbing.
How does this perspective affect my understanding of their Qur’an and my Torah? Unlike those in the past who played the zero sum game, I do not seek some verse in the Qur’an I can dispute or object to. Indeed, this is what the Qur’an itself teaches. “For every community We have appointed a whole system of worship which they are to observe. So do not let them draw you into disputes concerning this matter.” (22:67)
When I celebrate the eight day festival of Hanukah (December 10-18, 2020 this year) I celebrate not just religious freedom for Jews, but the principle of religious pluralism for all humans everywhere.
As the Qur’an states: “For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way. If Allah had wanted, He could have made you one people, but (He didn’t) that He might test you in what He gave you. Therefore compete with one another to hasten to do virtuous deeds; for all return to Allah (for judgement), so [then] He will let you know [about] that in which you differed.” [5:48]
“O mankind, We created you from male and female, and made you peoples and tribes, that you may know (respect) one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Quran 49:13)
The first century Jewish historian Josephus whose book ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ was completed around 94 CE wrote: “So much pleasure did (the Jews) find in the renewal of their customs and in unexpectedly obtaining the right to conduct their own [religious] service after so long a time, that they made a law that their descendants should celebrate the restoration of the temple service for eight days. From that time to the present [260 years later], we observe this festival, which we call the Festival of Lights, giving this name to it from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it.” (Antiquities XII, Loeb Classical Library edition, Volume 7, p. 169)
As the Qur’an states: ”Let there be no compulsion in Religion: truth stands out clear from error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah (one God) has grasped the most trustworthy unbreakable hand hold: Allah hears, and knows all things.” (2:256)
And “Say: we believe in God and in what has been revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham, Isma’il: Isaac, Jacob and The Tribes, and in (the Books) given to Moses, Jesus and the Prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another, among them, and to God do we bow our will.” (Qur’an 3:84)