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#5: The Candle of Religious Freedom

Chanukah Candle #5. Chamesh (Hebrew), pět (Czech), öt (Hungarian), talliman (North Alaskan Iñupiaq). Happy Fifth Night of Chanukah.

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Chanukah Blog Thots:

Chanukah is a holiday of stories, old and new. We retell the tale of the Maccabees boldly fighting for religious freedom. We share family stories or read Jewish folktales about Chanukah in distant and not-so-distant times. Many of these stories focus on the powerful symbolism of the Chanukah menorah (lamp), such that the Chanukah lights are an expression of Jewish identity and a symbol of hope for a better future. There are Holocaust tales of European Jews who somehow managed to gather around the menorah in the ghetto or to improvise one in the concentration camps. Other stories tell of American Jews who found hope and strength as they gathered around the Chanukah lights during the long winters of the 1930s and 1940s.

Although we are commanded to make known miracle of Chanukah by placing our Chanukah lights in the window, in many of these stories, the Jews had to hide their Chanukah menorahs out of fear. In such tales, the chanukiah (Chanukah menorah) symbolizes hope for a future free from religious persecution; a future in which Jews could reveal the light of the Chanukah lamp, openly declaring their identity and practicing Judaism without fear.

Displaying our Chanukah Lights
While the Jews in these Chanukah stories faced persecution, hid their identity for self-protection, and feared for their brothers and sisters, we are blessed to live in a country where we have freedom of religion. Many of our ancestors came to America in order to be free from religious persecution and to find the freedom to practice (or not practice) religion as they saw fit. When we proudly display our Chanukah lights, we are celebrating the very blessings for which so many Jews could only hope.

Freedom of religion allows Jews and people of other faiths or no faith to worship or refrain from worship as they see fit. Religious freedom is guaranteed for all Americans by the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Our Bill of Rights has allowed religion to flourish in America by preventing the government from inhibiting religious practice and from harming or interfering with religious institutions.

A Nation that Thrives on Religious Freedom
In a November 2004 press conference, President George Bush explained the importance of the separation of Church and State: “We live in a nation that has thrived on religious freedom and religious tolerance. Our founding fathers realized the dangers of building a society based upon a single state religion. They rightly feared the tyranny of state sponsored religion. Rather, the framers put up a wall of separation between Church and State. This separation has allowed all different religious groups — Jews, Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and secularists to flourish in this country.”

Yet we have witnessed a growing presence of overt religion in the halls of government. Many elected representatives proclaim themselves the embodiment of religious values. Others declare that America is, and therefore ought to act like, a Christian nation. Such sentiments threaten the tradition of liberty that is at the core of America’s identity.

Is America a Christian Nation?
America is not just a nation for Christians; it is a nation for all. (At best it is founded on Judeo-Christian values. And while a very large number of American citizen are of one of many different Christian denominations, these denominations often cannot agree with one another on basic tenets of their creed.) Not all Americans read the Bible in the same way as religious fundamentalists. Those of us who read the Bible understand its text against the backdrop of our own faith traditions and personal life experiences. Many Americans do not look to the Bible for religious guidance at all. To turn the halls of government – and the mission of government – into a mission of faith is to destroy one of the pillars upon which our nation rests. The light of religious liberty is being threatened. Not by those who would destroy religion, but by those, who, out of devotion to their own religious beliefs, wish to impose their worldview on others through force of law.

This spread of religion into government is evident in the drive to embed one group’s religious beliefs regarding marriage, women’s rights, protection of the environment and even the validity of scientific discovery into the legal codes that govern us all. The problem is not with faith; rather, it is with the imposition of one person or a group’s beliefs onto the entire nation.

Focusing on the Second Chanukah Blessing
For Jews, religious liberty flows through the story of Chanukah. When we recite the second blessing over the Chanukah lights (…sheh-asah neeseem lavotaynu), giving thanks for the miracles that God performed for our ancestors, we acknowledge the importance of religious liberty. This prayer recalls our ancestors’ celebration as they were no longer subject to tyrannical rulers who prevented them from practicing their faith. Indeed, it is our religious beliefs that inspire us to fight for religious liberty for all and for the preservation of the separation of Church and State.

This Chanukah, as we gather around the menorah and rejoice with family, friends and Jews around the world, may we remember our call to and the benefits of religious liberty. May we work to keep the light of liberty shining brightly.

Adapted from Chanukah: Tales of Religious Freedom, by Rabbi Leah Doberne-Schor (then intern at the URJ Commission on Social Action)

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Chag Chanukah Samayach – Happy Chanukah!


  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the ideas that you have sent. I have been reading them to the family each night as we light the Menorah.
    I still disagree with you that this is not a Christian country. While we do have religious freedom the inroads that arw being made by the “Conservative Christains” harken back to the days of the Pilgrims and the other early settlers. They came to these shores to find “religious freedom” but they were intolerant of anybody elses beliefs.
    Thomas Jefferson, who was a man of enlightenment, was instrumental in the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, which we call “The Bill of Rights”.
    Again thank you for these thoughts and your continuing support.

  2. Debi Y says:

    Religious freedom is a controversial topic, even in our home. We are all in complete support of this liberty, but wonder how real it is to consider that anything will be changed by the fanatical fundementalists. It is always good to consider the possibilities and encourage discussion. Thank you for encouraging our discussions during Chanukah this year. Happy Chanukah, Debi, Rick, and Peter

  3. Holly says:

    It deeply worries me that the USA is seen as a “Christian country”. I do believe that it was founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs, however, I very much value the separation between Church and State. If the USA marginalizes non-Christians by becoming more Christian in its laws and governance, I would find it very difficult to continue to live here. For me, “Jew” comes first before “American”. I hope it never comes to that. Holly

  4. Marsi Gore says:

    enjoyed this blog; got me thinking about the intended separation of church and state and how this seemingly clear line has been blurred.

  5. Marcy Cameron says:

    Lots to think about with this blog, Rabbi. Despite our freedoms here in America, it does often feels like we live in a Christian society – especially this time of year. At our dinner table discussions we try to empahsize equality and the theory of live and let live. Our children will shape the future. Thanks for these thought-provoking blogs.

  6. Holly says:

    Thanks for the to-do list. It is easy to get caught up in some of Chanukah and forget about other aspects that make it a fuller and richer experience. Now, I just have to work on New Year’s resolutions, Jewish style….

  7. Kenneth says:

    Thank you for your blogs- so much good material and food for thought.
    We enjoyed the service last night very
    much and happy to participate in making joyous music

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