Holiday of Religious Liberty

The Jews of Western Europe and America gave Hanukkah new meaning--which remains with us today.

Print this page Print this page

It is Passover, not Hanukkah, that Jews call "the festival of our freedom." Among Jews in the Western countries in the late 19th century, though, that minor winter festival had come to be identified as a celebration of religious liberty.

Traditionally, the focus of Hanukkah was on the divine miracle worked for the priests who restored the purity of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after its liberation from Hellenistic foreign rulers. The holiday was considered a triumph of the Maccabees and their dedication to Temple rites and the primacy of Jewish law. But as the liberal regimes of Western Europe and America began in the 1800s to champion modern notions of religious tolerance and freedom, the Jews of those nations began to see Hanukkah as a celebration of those very values.

Hymn of the New Hanukkah

Liberal liturgist Leopold Stein (1810-1882) gave classic expression to this new outlook in a German hymn sung to the traditional German melody for the medieval Hanukkah song Ma'oz Tsur.

hanukkah as religious libertyThe lyrics of the traditional hymn recounted the repeated pattern of the Jewish people being rescued by God from foreign regimes who sought to subjugate or even obliterate them. In contrast, the theme of Stein's work is the universal liberation of humanity from the tyranny of oppressive regimes. The uprising of the Jews under the leadership of the Hasmonean priests (the Maccabees and their descendants) against their Syrian-based overlords serves as a model of an ostensibly weak people, living under occupation by a ruthless world power, who nonetheless prevail in their war of national liberation.

For the mid-sized and smaller ethnic groups of Europe struggling to establish their own states along ethnic and, frequently, religious lines in a world controlled by Habsburg emperors, Kaisers, and other imperial rulers, the message was (to cite a popular adage): the Jews are just like everyone else, but more so. In this case, the "more so" is that they anticipated the trend by nearly two millennia. To Stein and those who thought like him, the Jews therefore became the original fighters for religious tolerance, serving as the model for those who would later champion that cause.

That German hymn was translated into English by two scholarly Central European rabbis living in the United States, Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) and Gustav Gottheil (1827-1903). It achieved wide recognition and appears in many 20th-century Jewish prayerbooks, across denominational lines. In this version, the song declares:

Rock of Ages, let our song

Praise Thy saving power;

Thou, amidst the raging foes,

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.