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Hanukkah And The American Spirit

Republished: December 3, 2010

The festival of Hanukkah has always had a special significance for American Jews. The story of the Maccabees, recounting of the victory of a small but principled community struggling against tyranny, echoed the struggle for Independence of the United States. The holiday's ideal of religious freedom and liberty is deeply reflected in the fundamental values of our American democratic traditions.

George Washington portrait
Judah Maccabee, I presume? No, it's a portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale.

In colonial America, the festival was celebrated in homes and synagogues with the kindling of menorahs of hand-beaten brass, tin or pewter, in the tradition of Dutch Jewry. In 1763, the first day of Hanukkah was chosen for the dedication ceremonies for the new Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., recalling the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the Maccabean revolt. In 1790, George Washington visited the sanctuary, and later wrote a famous letter to the congregation pledging that the new nation would "give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

In another communication with the first president in 1790, the members of Congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, S.C., many of whose members had fought in the Revolution, expressed their support for Washington, with the words "We and our posterity will not cease to chronicle and commemorate you…with Judah Maccabee and other holy men of old, who were raised up by God for the deliverance of His people from oppression."

The ancient and stirring Hanukkah hymn, "Ma-oz Tzur" has been beloved by generations of American Reform Jews in its English version, "Rock of Ages." This poetic paraphrase was composed by Gustav Gottheil, rabbi of New York's famed Temple Emanu-El, in the late 19th century. The hymn proclaims those spiritual and moral dimensions of the festival that so clearly reflect the intersection of Jewish and American ideals:

Rock of Ages, let our song
Praise Your saving power;
You amidst the raging foes,
Were our sheltering tower!
Furious, they assailed us,
But Your arm availed us.
And Your word, broke their sword
When our own strength failed us!


Children of the Maccabees,
Whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs,
Where you may be scattered!
Yours the message cheering,
That the time is nearing,
Which will see, each one free,
Tyrants disappearing!
Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Rabbi Howard A. Berman

Rabbi Howard A. Berman is the National Executive Director of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, and also leads Boston Jewish Spirit, a progressive Reform congregation in Boston, Mass., with a special outreach to interfaith families.

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