^ the candles of Chanukkah (photo credit : Phyllis Pollack)

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The festival we call Chanukkah celebrates events from about 2200 years ago, much of which are related in the first two Books of Maccabees, books not included in the Bible canon but which probably every observant Jew — and many others — have read many times over.

The Maccabee family, especially youngest brother Judah Maccabee, led and guided the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, ruler of what are today Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, descendant of the general whom Alexander the Great left in charge after his untimely death at age 33. The revolt was maybe the first in recorded history generated almost purely by people seeking the right to worship as they saw fit and to practice their culture and language — all of which Antiochus, negating his father Antiochus III’s guarantees, had banned. The revolt was successful, and services in the great Temple in Jerusalem were revived.

It’s not as clean a good guy story as we now hold it; Antiochus was called into Israel by a Jewish faction supporting the Egyptian, Ptolemaic rulers with whom, for decades, the Seleucids had been contesting for regional dominance; and so the Maccabee family was rebelling not only against a Greek ruler but also against an opposing party of Jews. Yet this complication need not impede our current remembrance of Hanukkah’s significance; for the Maccabees fought for several decades against Antiochus IV, were subjected to cruelties that even today’s ISIS might envy, and often were forced to become guerilla fighters even as they politicked with influential families to win alliances powerful enough to prevail ; which they did, giving Israel freedom that it did not lose until Herod’s time, the generation of Jesus.

That was then. Toady, what meaning has Hanukkah for us, and to what do we ascribe it ? A fairly authoritative answer was given last night at the Boston lighting of the Hanukkah Menorah by the Chabad/Boston rabbi who presided : He said : Hanukkah means freedom of worship, freedom to be who you are, freedom to be safe in a community of all faiths and nations.

Stripped of its political complications so painstakingly narrated in the four Maccabees books, what the Chabad Rabbi said is exactly what Hanukkah is about. That Judas Maccabeus and his descendants acquired rule in Israel was surely the political necessity, but the need for it was generated by the purpose : the desire — the right — to be oneself, to worship as one desires, to speak one’s language, to be recognized as all of these and equal to anyone in politics and in respect.

Both Governor Baker and Mayor Walsh — each spoke eloquently; each loudly applauded — affirmed in their talks this essential of Hanukkah as it applies in Boston and Massachusetts today : we welcome all people, of all faiths and of all nations, to a safe home in our community social and political. The 400 to 500 people attending the ceremony exemplified this diverse welcome.

And while no one said anything explicit of it, everyone at the lighting understood exactly the political events and persons that our leaders’ affirmations confronted, stood up to, rejected. It was a declaration of defiance not all that different from the one thrown down by the Maccabee Family in 167 BC.

These are timeless verities, rights without expiration date, dignities that no dictator or strong-man can extinguish.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere




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