This week, Jewish communities around the world are celebrating Hanukkah (pronounced kha-nu-kah). This eight-day festival of lights commemorates victory over a powerful empire.
In 164BCE, the Holy Land was ruled by Syrian Greeks, who tried to force the people of Israel to accept their culture and beliefs. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove out the Greeks, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.
Upon entering the temple, the Maccabees tried to light the Menorah – a candelabra with eight branches – and discovered that only one day’s supply of olive oil had been left uncontaminated by the Greeks. Miraculously, the oil burnt for eight days until new oil could be purified.
During the festival of Hanukkah, one candle of the Menorah is lit every night until all eight branches are kindled. This is typically accompanied by prayers and food prepared with olive oil.
Rabbi Cliff Cohen of Thanet District Reform Synagogue identifies that the key to peaceful coexistence is learning to respect each other’s traditions: ‘Hanukkah is a festival proclaiming the right to religious and cultural freedom. In today’s world, this cannot be restricted to Jews wanting to practice their Judaism. The events of 164BCE demand that we examine our attitudes to diversity and learn to welcome variety within our society.’
Rabbi Cohen describes how he and his family celebrate Hanukkah as part of the wider community: ‘This year, as usual, we shall take our Menorah to the home of some non-Jewish friends, and they will join us in the celebration of Hanukkah before we join them in their Christmas carol singing.’
As Rabbi Cohen explains, this kind of exchange is crucial to building understanding and mutual respect: ‘For my family, the Hanukkah message is very clear – whenever we demand that others think or feel as we do, we open the door to prejudice, division and damage. We cannot believe that intolerance is what God wants from us.’
At a time of heightened intolerance and unrest, it is important that we educate ourselves about the diverse traditions that exist within our community so that we can live together without fear or prejudice.