As 2011 draws to a close, the streets and the store windows are decorated as the Christian world celebrates Christmas. In many places one will also find the symbols of the Hanukkah festival adorning our squares and storefronts, a sign of respect and appreciation of the Jewish minority in these countries.
This year, the two festivals coincide, giving additional meaning to the common origins of our shared religious traditions. It is intriguing to note however that while Hanukkah is celebrated by Jews as the festival of religious freedom, the actual story of the struggle as recorded in the Book of Maccabees is absent from the Jewish canon, only to be included in Christian versions of the Bible.
Many varied explanations have been given for this surprising omission of the Maccabean heroes from the collection of the Pentateuch, the Books of the Prophets and other holy writings which make up the Torah. It is however beyond any doubt that the reconstituted Jewish independent state headed by the Maccabean dynasty, disintegrated after only a few generations, beset by civil war, tyranny and corruption, and ultimately led into occupation, destruction and exile.
Nahmanides of Girona, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar, ascribed the demise of the Maccabean state to the fact that following the successful revolt, the Maccabean priests appointed themselves kings, circumventing biblical wisdom, which calls for a clear separation between the priesthood and state authority.
This past year has been marked by a series of revolutions in the Middle East, which have come to be known as the Arab Spring. In country after country, the population has risen against long-time corrupt and secular dictators. In the democratic world, the political leadership and the media have expressed hope that these revolutions will finally bring some form of liberal democracy to these countries and respect for human rights and religious freedom.
It is but 22 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, when Eastern Europe began its journey to personal and national freedoms. What we do know today is that holding elections is only part of this process. The road to freedom, democracy and recognition of basic human rights is a long, difficult and continuous struggle. It requires for example the creation of an independent judiciary and free parliaments not dependent on the executive. Moreover, as we mourn the passing of Vaclav Havel, it also requires political leadership with the vision to involve all of civic society, protecting all minorities and encompassing cultural freedoms.
The Middle East, home of all three Abrahamic faiths, has increasingly become hostile to Christians who are being terrorized and killed while the Christian population living in Arab countries is dwindling to insignificant numbers, making Israel the only truly safe place for Christians in the region. As one could once judge the level of democracy and human rights in a European state by the way it treated its Jewish population, is not the treatment of Christians now a useful and valid litmus test for progression towards those values in the Middle East?
The lesson for us is that the demise of the Maccabean state should serve as a reminder to all national religious entities, Church, Synagogue or Mosque, that the quest for earthly political power brings with it the danger of corruption.
The history of Hanukkah should be a reminder to all of us, that although revolutions may be inevitable, it is of greater importance to know what will happen after the revolutions. Human hope, symbolized by the lone candle glowing in the dark, requires respect for the supreme value of the life of every human being and the right of any group to religious freedom.
The right of a minority to be different, to think differently and to worship in a different way is the cornerstone of our civilization. As the masses in Tahrir Square demonstrate for their own freedom, they should remember that their personal freedoms in the future will depend on the manner in which they deal today with the minorities in their midst. If the mob is allowed to continue to destroy churches and to kill Coptic Christians, their own lives will be less secure
But religious intolerance is not confined to the Middle East. Europeans too are becoming less and less tolerant of the stranger in our midst, which has manifested itself in restrictive legislation in Europe. In Switzerland, attempts are made to prevent the building of minarets on mosques. In France and in Belgium, women are told how to dress and in Holland, politicians in parliament try to tell Jews and Muslims what to eat. Legislation against religious freedom will not make Europe more free, with greater security and prosperity. Freedom is the greatest gift of humankind. It is in this spirit that we should celebrate our holidays.