Hanukkah Then and Now: A Fight for Religious Liberty

A man stops to read an announcement at Congregation Divrei Yoel in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Tuesday, April 7, 2020 in New York. The synagogue is closed to gatherings due to the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, and it seems, as we approach the holiday of Hanukkah (beginning tonight) that these words are exceptionally true…especially in California, New York, and other states flexing their authoritarian muscles.


Most people are at least a little familiar with the holiday of Hanukkah, in which Jews light one candle per night for eight nights. The historical background is that in the Second Century B.C.E. the kingdom of Judea (modern Israel) was controlled by the Seleucid Greeks. The practice of Judaism was banned, and a revolt was led by Mattathias and his five sons commencing in 167 B.C.E.  Known as the “Maccabees” (meaning “hammer”), this family led the people in a war for their spiritual freedom.  When they were victorious and re-took Jerusalem, they needed to clean and rededicate the Holy Temple (the word Hanukkah means “dedication”). In this rededication, they needed pure oil for the Temple’s Eternal Light, and there was enough oil found to last only one day. It would take eight days for more oil to be procured, and in what is known as the “second miracle, the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days—until there was new pure oil. As a result, we light candles for eight days in commemoration of this miracle.

But this is not what the holiday is really about at its essence, for there was a “first miracle” that is significantly more important, both in ancient times, and especially in these challenging times of political attacks on religion.

That first miracle of the holiday is that this group of spiritual warriors actually defeated the powerful Seleucids. These Syrian-Greeks, the most powerful army on Earth at the time, were defeated by a group of guerilla warriors who were fighting not for their physical lives, but for their spiritual survival. This military victory is the initial miracle that we commemorate.

Most wars are fought due to a threat to the physical lives of the combatants. One side wants to kill the other side in order to acquire land, power, wealth, resources, etc. The other side defends themselves so as not to be physically killed.  But the Hasmonean conflict was different—it was truly a war for the spirit. The Greeks had no desire for the Jews to die.  The exact opposite—they wanted the Jews to live and to give up their spiritual practices. They did not desire to subjugate the Jews as slaves or kill them to acquire wealth. The Seleucids wanted to destroy the souls of the people by prohibiting their worship. These Greeks understood that if they could get the Jews to stop their worship practices, then they would be able to ultimately conquer and control them more fully. They knew that as long as the Jews worshipped something above the government, the government could never be ultimately powerful.

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The Talmud makes it clear that the Hasmoneans took up arms not to defend their bodies, but to protect their spirits.  They risked their lives and wel-being in order to have the ability to worship God as they believed. They refused to become the atheists that the Greeks desired, and were willing to risk everything to ensure that they could practice the worship rituals needed for the survival of their souls. The Maccabees were committed to not allowing a secular government to control their spiritual lives.

It is here that we sadly see such amazing parallels with what is happening right now in so many states.

Under the guise of “protecting against Covid-19,” multiple state governors have put citizens in lockdown. These governors have arbitrarily decided which businesses are essential and which are not, with total disregard for the holistic well-being of the people. Enacting draconian laws upon the populace (which they personally disregard), these governors are attempting to control every aspect of our lives financially, with family relationships, and with God.

It is sickly ironic that Gov. Newsome here in California considers the production of television and films essential, but church and synagogue services are non-essential. (In one California county, even strip clubs were permitted but not church services.) Beginning with the first quarantines issued in San Francisco back in March, houses of worship were specifically singled out as being forbidden gatherings. Since the beginning of this pandemic, COVID-19 has been used by politicians to accumulate power and to specifically target and destroy the religious practices of the people. Gov. Newsome, Mayor Garcetti, and others happily attend BLM marches with thousands of people, believe that people of faith should not congregate and worship (including singing, which has been a vital part of Jewish religious practices for over 2000 years).


Like the Maccabees, people of faith must stand together in supporting each other’s worship services. We must not allow our spirituality to be determined by secular politicians who have a direct Machiavellian interest in reducing and ultimately eliminating religious worship.

Our Supreme Court recently acknowledged that the First Amendment cannot be violated for this pandemic. “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the court’s unsigned majority opinion said. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

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But Governors Newsome and Cuomo have already stated that this decision doesn’t apply to them, and that as part of the lockdown, they insist on restricting our worship. While they and politicians like them have meals at expensive restaurants without any form of social distancing or face protection, they insist that synagogues and churches not gather, or that if they do gather they must meet guidelines that restrict a majority of our communities from practicing their religion passionately and fully. In many areas, we are prohibited from worshipping entirely, or if allowed, services must be outdoors (a challenge in both the cold of winter and the intense heat of summer), masked, and without singing as part of the worship.  The secular politicians, like the Seleucids over 2000 years ago, are attempting to control and destroy our spiritual lives.

And like the Maccabees, we must stand up, stay true to our beliefs and fight for religious liberties.


I am not suggesting in any way to physically attack the local and state governments that are attacking worship, but there are many ways to stand up. We must all support each other’s religious services, no matter the faith. It is meaningful to every Jew when a non-Jew supports a temple as we worship, and my Christian colleagues have repeatedly expressed their gratitude when I, as a rabbi, support their communities. We can also support this effort to combat governmental control over religion by supporting organizations like The Advocates for Faith and Freedom, which is one of the pro bono law firms supporting so many churches and synagogues in this fight in the courts.

And we must all encourage our clergy to have courage, and to respond to these attacks on our religious practices by holding live worship services (as well as streaming for those congregants who don’t feel comfortable coming to services).

There are many ways to hold live religious services that are safe on all levels. In our temple, we held live services for the High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur outdoors under a 5000-sq. ft. canopy, and held double services so that everyone could attend while still being comfortably distant from each other (and in following up three weeks later, found that not one person who attended our services got sick).

Our synagogue community continues to worship in our weekly services both streaming and live in our sanctuary for those who desire to pray in person, and we will be having our annual Hanukkah celebration this week, despite Gov. Newsome’s dictates. We can stream services and be there as a virtual community for those who are fulfilled by that, but we must also be available for those who seek a live community experience, and so we continue to worship the way we have done for millennia. My friend Pastor Rob McCoy has been repeatedly fined for holding live services in his church, and yet he too continues to do his spiritual duty. And there are countless other clergy, like John MacArthur and Mike McClure, who are leading their communities in worship despite the financial and legal risks. But now, we must all reach out to our local clergy and implore them to take this step of being spiritual warriors like the ancient Maccabees and lead their congregations in live prayer services.

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Rabbis, ministers, priests, pastors and all clergy are simply men and women—and they need encouragement to take these types of risks. We all need to support them in every way in making the decision to open their houses of worship for prayer. With the recent SCOTUS ruling, there is no longer any legal reason for clergy not to hold live services. And there is every reason to do so, especially in states like California and New York that are attempting to ignore that ruling and tighten their draconian mandates even more.

As we are about to begin this holy Festival of Hanukkah, we must choose to emulate the Maccabees and stand up for our spiritual survival against any attempted persecutions of the state. Like the Hasmoneans, we all have the responsibility to support each other in ensuring that every person of faith has the opportunity to worship safely in their way.

We are taught this lesson of spiritual courage by the Maccabees. The Establishment Clause of the Constitution, as again recently validated by the Supreme Court, guarantees us the ability to worship, whether or not there’s a pandemic. Yes, we all need to be considerate and careful, and provide as safe an atmosphere as possible, but we must all support each other and embrace the challenges of holding safe, live services with passion, courage, and integrity. We need to look at the Maccabee example of courage and integrate it with the recent SCOTUS decision, and act with passion to keep our houses of worship open for the people who choose to come. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached that the church is “not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” For thousands of years, governments and politicians, from the Seleucid Greeks to current governors, have known that religious practices reduce their political power. Once again we are now faced with a state that is forgetting the essentiality of spirituality, and it is our responsibility to stand up and dedicate ourselves to our faith traditions. We must remain as the state’s conscience and not allow ourselves to be its servants.


This year, we all must truly celebrate Hanukkah and integrate the lessons that can be learned from it into our lives.


May we all have holidays of light and dedication, and may the spiritual courage of our ancestors shine a pathway for each of us to follow through this holy time of year.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha, the author of “Sacred Relationships:  Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together.” He can be reached directly at [email protected].



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