Hanukkah, the ancient festival of lights, is a celebration of the re-establishment of the right of a people to worship God openly and publically. For this reason, the renowned medieval Jewish scholar Rashi celebrated Hanukkah by placing his menorah in his window closest to the street. Hanukkah reminds all people of all faiths of their natural right to worship God freely, openly, and without fear.
By decree of the ancient Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great, the exiled Judeans were allowed to return to the Promised Land and to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple had previously been destroyed and the Judeans had been carried off into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylonia whose empire was subsequently overtaken by the Persians. The Persians thus recognized the right of the Judeans to their tiny land, a fact of history that has been lost on Ahmad Ahmadinejad, the present ruler of Persia, known today as Iran.
Persia was subsequently conquered by Alexander the Great who introduced secular Greek philosophy into the Middle East. As such Judea fell under the control first of Alexander and then by his successors, successively the Egyptian Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Syrian Greek Seleucid Empire. The Syrian Greek Emperor Antiochus VI banned the practice of Judaism in 167 BC.
Antiochus authorized that the Temple in Jerusalem be desecrated and that circumcision be banned. The game of dreidel, played as part of the Hanukkah celebration, with its mysterious letters, represents a form of religious practice that was conducted in secret as a means of avoiding detection from the Greek authorities. The Greeks were secular in orientation as the worship of the gods of Olympus had lost favor at the time of Alexander. This was evidenced by the eventual ease in which the Greek world, as inherited by the Roman Empire, would voluntarily accept Christianity in the first and second centuries AD.
Antiochus VI ordered all of his subjects to worship him as the state god thus establishing the principle of the total state and cult worship of the leader. Claiming to speak as a god, Antiochus demanded the people worship State power as the redemptive force on earth. In the person of Antiochus, the State would thus exercise total power and an enlightened elite would conduct itself in the name of the people. The Greek Syrian state controlled property, education, culture, and politics.
Mattasyahu, the leader of the priestly Hasmonean clan, and his five sons, rebelled against the mighty Antiochus IV and his Hellenized secular Jewish allies. The tiny rag-tag guerilla army of Mattasyahu’s son, known as Judah Maccabee or Judah the Hammer, defeated the fifty thousand strong army of Antiochus and thus Judah established Jewish independence in the land that is known as Israel today. The menorah represents a small miracle that accompanied the Hasmonean re-dedication of the Temple, a small but discernible sign from the creator.
Such Greek practices as male nude wrestling in the gymnasia were replaced in Judea by Temple worship and eventually by the development of synagogue worship. Subsequent Hasmonean rulers of Judea established the first public school system and advanced monotheism in the world. The Hasmoneans would eventually succumb to intrigue associated with a fight over succession and the Roman General Pompey exploited the discord by taking over Judea for Rome. Thus Judea lost its sovereignty and the stage was set for another era of religious suppression and the emerging messianic movement which resulted in a form of Judaism eventually overtaking the mighty Roman Empire itself.
Thus was established, at least in principle, the idea of religious freedom, an idea that would not be fully realized until the July 1776 establishment of the American Republic. America would be the first government that established, in the tradition of the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story, the right to free and public expression of religious faith. Indeed, the universal theme of Hanukkah should remind us, as Americans, of the true meaning of our creed.