Holiday of Religious Liberty

The Jews of Western Europe and America gave Hanukkah new meaning--which remains with us today.

Print this page Print this page

Wast our sheltering tower.

Furious they assailed us,

But Thine arm availed us,

And Thy Word

Broke their sword

When our own strength failed us.

Kindling new the holy lamps,

Priests, approved in suffering,

Purified the nation's shrine,

Brought to God their offering.

And His courts surrounding

Hear, in joy abounding,

Happy throngs,

Singing songs

With a mighty sounding.

Children of the martyr race,

Whether free or fettered,

Wake the echoes of the songs

Where ye may be scattered.

Yours the message cheering

That the time is nearing

Which will see

All men free,

Tyrants disappearing.

The contrast with the traditional Hebrew hymn is striking. Gone is the uniqueness of the Jewish experience of repeated persecution. The divine rescue is not the preservation of God's unique, covenanted nation but a harbinger of what will transpire for all the nations of the world: liberation and self-determination.

Generations of Jews raised in the Western world, where the uniquely Christian message of Christmas dominated public spaces despite the Enlightenment promise of a religiously neutral society, found in Hanukkah a response to that challenge. Jews took the opportunity of their own December holiday to assert the value of religious freedom, the right of a minority to live according to its own religious values and practices. Understood this way, Hanukkah provided the Jews a way to say, "We, too, belong in this society. We, too, have something unique and valuable to contribute--valuable to the world, and not just to us."

Candle of Peace

The Jewish heritage came to be presented in such universal terms in sermons and liturgical passages, and even in popular song. Peter Yarrow, the eponymous member of the mid- to late 20th-century musical trio "Peter, Paul, and Mary," penned a Hanukkah song, "Light One Candle," that reflects a later version of this outlook. Nothing uniquely Jewish is at stake in the story of Hanukkah. "Justice and freedom," in the abstract, are what must be preserved by the valorous Maccabees whose very "right to exist was denied."

The unnamed person(s) addressed in the lyrics are told to "light one candle" (not eight) for the Maccabees, whose generically vague "light" was never extinguished. Somehow, this will also advance the cause of peace:

Light one candle for the Maccabee children

With thanks that their light didn't die.

Light one candle for the pain they endured

When their right to exist was denied.

Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice

Justice and freedom demand.

But light one candle for the wisdom to know

When the peacemaker's time is at hand.

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.