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A Halachic View of ‘Freedom of Religion’

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            It’s Chanukah time and Jews, around the world, are again celebrating this holiday which is said to mark our nation’s freedom from the tyranny of the Syrian-Greek overlords who controlled the land of Israel at this time. What we have already previously addressed, though -- in the blog article, ‘Why Chanukah Isn’t About What You Think It’s About’ -- is that this is not actually a correct presentation of the story behind this holiday. The original battle, which eventually led to the involvement of the Syrian-Greeks, was a civil war within the Jewish nation between the traditional Maccabees and the Jewish Hellenists. The whole Chanukah story began with a religious war between these two factions within Israel. The Syrian-Greeks only got involved because the Jewish Hellenists called for the overlord’s intervention on their behalf, falsely telling the Syrian-Greeks that, if the Maccabees won, the traditionalists would then fully rebel. The Syrian-Greeks really only became involved to protect, effectively, their financial interests.
            This misrepresentation of what occurred has then led to another misconception that permeates our modern discussion of the holiday – that the battle was for freedom of religion. While it was true that each faction within Israel wanted the freedom to follow their specific religious beliefs, the concept of ‘freedom of religion’ (as we understand and practice it today) declares that there should be a general tolerance (within certain parameters) for the different practices of religion of all people. This was not generally the issue in regard to Chanukah. The Hellenists began the whole war because they wished to prevent the traditionalists from practicing traditional Judaism. They were totally against freedom of religion. When the traditionalists won, it would seem that they then tried to impose the practices of traditional Judaism on the Hellenists. The advocation of ‘freedom of religion’ would not seem to actually be one of the lessons of Chanukah.
 
 
            Yet the traditionalists only attempted to restrict the Hellenists’ faith after their victory; before the war they did practice tolerance. Why was this so? And why did these Jewish Hellenists attempt to restrict the practices of the traditionalists when, throughout the ancient world dominated by Hellenism, there was general acceptance of other religions? In regard to this last question, the answer may lie in the fact that the tolerance expressed by Hellenism, in general, was towards other pagan religions. The Jewish Hellenists faced a different issue: monotheism. This reflected a whole different problem and is why the Jewish Hellenists could not, like Hellenists elsewhere, express the tolerance of their compatriots in other lands. Monotheism really challenged them.
 
            What is perhaps of more interest to me, though, is the other question – why the traditionalists practiced tolerance towards the Hellenists before the war but did not do so after the war? It would seem obvious that if they practiced tolerance at anytime, there must be some halachic concept of freedom of religion. The first challenge is then in explaining why they only observed it in one set of circumstances and not the other. The further and, perhaps, greater issue is explaining this very concept which, in effect, would be tied to the circumstances.
 
            A senior rabbi once explained to me that, after the Hellenists attempted to violently impose their beliefs upon the traditionalist Jews, it would have been foolish for the traditionalists to then be tolerant of these Hellenists. This would only allow the Hellenists to rebound and then attempt to attack the traditionalists again. You simply cannot be tolerant of others when this tolerance will only provide the means for this other to attack you. Once the Hellenists showed their true violent hatred of tradition, the traditionalists could not express tolerance towards the Hellenists.
 
             This idea actually also presents an interesting insight into the halachic view of ‘freedom of religion’. In many ways, it is different than the general secular view. Within this secular viewpoint, in accepting freedom of religion, we accept the right of individuals to simply maintain their views in this regard. ‘I believe’ – and that should be enough for the other to stand back and not interfere. In the secular eye: religion is an expression of the ego and the call is for one to be allowed to express and follow the decisions of one’s ego.
From a Torah perspective, though, the issue is truth, yet the truth is actually difficult to ascertain. What we are thus to further recognize, and this is reflected in the value of tolerance, is the inherent fallibilities within the human being which make this goal so, so difficult. Halachic freedom of religion is not about ego. Even one striving to reach the right conclusion, though, can make a mistake and the call of freedom of religion, in this regard, must flow from the recognition that one is not necessarily culpable for a mistake if one is still striving to reach the truth and do right. Halachic freedom of religion is not a call to accept another’s view as correct but, rather, a recognition that the other may not be culpable for his/her view, if mistaken, and should be treated, as such, as if innocent. We may still be called upon to recognize the need and right of all to express their thoughts and be adamant in their positions. The further call is that this must necessarily be accompanied with the recognition of human fallibility.  
This should actually be the way with all our freedoms. They should not be expressions of unbridled egos but also recognitions of our fallibilities. This would, in fact, change their natures. Freedom of speech then would not be only a right to yell what I want to say as an expression of ego. It would also include a call to listen for it would demand of everyone to consider their fallibilities and human shortcomings. Coupled with a faith in the human spirit should also be a recognition of our limitations. The expression of this truth indeed may be part of the Chanukah story.        
 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht 
 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
 
 Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
 
 

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