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Cohen: Freedom Of Religion

So tomorrow we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving and Hanukkah together for the first time since 1888 – an event that won’t come again for another 77,798 years! This is because the Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar while the Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar calendar. But while they rarely overlap, they both share a very important message.

The pilgrims, guided by very strong religious fervor and faith saw themselves as establishing a New Israel. They read their Bible and many scholars point to the Jewish fall harvest holiday, the Sukkot, as the basis for Thanksgiving.

Sukkot also helps explain why Hanukkah, is celebrated for eight days since Hanukkah was celebrated for the first time in 165 BCE as a late -season observance of the eight day holiday of Sukkot.

The story of the oil miracle doesn’t appear until much later - during the Talmudic period - because the rabbis had an ax to grind against the Macabees who combined both being kings and priests. Even the Bible believed in separation of house of worship and state – and the Macabees were known for corruption and infighting. This led to the Roman conquest and the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 and the end of Jewish sovereignty until 1948. But w hile the miracle of the oil may not be historically accurate it lays the groundwork for seeing Hanukkah as a celebration of religious freedom.

We also celebrate Thanksgiving as a holiday of religious freedom. And we associate it with the Pilgrims, who established the Plymouth Colony to observe their form of Christianity - and celebrated what we honor as the first Thanksgiving in November of 1621. But the Pilgrims were not really advocates of religious freedom; they were believers in a theocratic – and quite intolerant - community. Fortunately it was not the narrow minded Puritans who won the day – but Roger Williams, who arrived in Plymouth in 1631 with an open and tolerant view of religion. As the colonies formed into a nation it was William’s vision that became the real basis for our belief in religious freedom.

And this brings me back to Hannukah – because while the Maccabees were fighting for freedom from Greek occupation and oppression they were not fighting for religious freedom for all. In fact they were also involved in a civil war with the Hellenized Jews of their day. Like the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock, the Maccabees held a very narrow view of who and what was acceptable when it came to religion. And yet we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as holidays of religious freedom. One might say that we’ve created a false myth about both holidays.

But while myths may not be literally true, they are one of the vehicles where societies safeguard their values. In the case of the observance of both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah we decided that religious freedom is something we hold sacred and we’ve chosen to celebrate it by means of these holidays. And for that we can surely be thankful.

Rabbi Michael Cohen is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center and teaches at Bennington College.
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