Jews throughout the world recently celebrated the festival of Chanukah. Each year we are told Chanukah represents the quintessential Jewish value of absolute religious freedom: the right to worship anyone or anything – or to worship nothing – according to one’s own personal inclination. This is a strange interpretation of a festival celebrating the victory of religious fundamentalists over modernizers and whose story begins with Matityahu’s beheading of a fellow Jew who was exercising his “fundamental right” to worship as he pleased by sacrificing a pig.
The post-Enlightenment “religious freedom” interpretation of Chanukah is, however, merely par for the course. For some time, the entire content of the Jewish religion has been given this interpretation in the United States.
I vividly recall that my senior year high-school civics textbook contained a photograph of a bearded traditional rabbi blowing the shofar, the ancient call to examine one’s life and repent of one’s sins. Sure enough, the caption under the photo reduced the entire image to an example of the First Amendment in action.
The fact is that in America the essential message and teachings of Judaism have long been turned on their head. The Jewish people’s loyalty to their ancestral religion rather than converting to that of the majority culture – a loyalty anchored in the Commandments given at Sinai by the Creator of the Universe – is explained as a message that “it really shouldn’t matter what your religion is.”
The practice of the Jewish religion is one of the most demanding in the world – perhaps the most demanding. Every Orthodox Jew, however secular the surrounding culture, lives in a theocratic bubble. The faithful Jew lives his life in accordance to strict regulations whose ultimate authority stems from God. Every observant Jew recites at least three prayer services each and every day of his life – a practice other religions limit to their clergy and to monastic orders.
Everything the Jew does, from how he rises and ties his shoes to how he retires at night and every activity in between, is not only performed in conformity to strict religious law, but accompanied by prayers and blessings.
Since the days of King David every Jew has attempted to bless God at least one hundred times each day. Judaism is perhaps the “prayingest” religion in the world, yet it is usually the Jewish people and their status as a religious minority that is invoked as an argument against public prayer. There are apparently even politicians who do not realize their ignorance when they boast to Orthodox Jewish audiences that they would never choose as an appointee anyone who begins the day by praying.
There is something terribly wrong when the world looks at the spectacle of the Jewish people – who refuse to abandon the yoke of Heaven placed upon them by God, who pray almost constantly, who bear on their heads a public witness to God’s existence and authority, who live their entire lives according to an almost totalitarian religious discipline – and concludes that the message they are conveying is identical to that of Voltaire, a commitment to an absolute “religious freedom” that is the total negation of loyalty to the jealous God of Israel
Why isn’t the message instead that Israel’s God is real, that He is worthy of the devotion of all mankind, that He is in fact the Creator of us all and demands that we acknowledge Him and live by His laws? Why is so much lost in translation? Or is the message being read backward in a mirror?
When Chanukah returns next year and we are surrounded by the message that it celebrates the giving of the Bill of Rights to Thomas Jefferson on Mt. Rushmore, it would be well to remind ourselves that the religion practiced by the Chashmanayim was the same religion practiced by Yehoshua Bin Nun when he conquered Eretz Kena’an and destroyed its wicked inhabitants (at God’s command).
In fact, it is polytheism and idolatry that are the world’s only truly “tolerant” religions – for the simple reasons that they reject the idea of One God.
May the next Chanukah bring a new and more accurate understanding of Judaism to the world.