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The festival of Hanukkah: Victories for rights and liberties echo from ancient times to inspire us

The story of Hanukkah recounts the actions of stalwart Maccabee leaders and the revolt that saved the Jewish people. The Book of Judith, which is also intertwined with the victories of Hanukkah, chronicles the daring feats of a woman who was merely a member of a Jewish community. Yet she too, saved her people. Judith’s story deserves attention as it instructs us to contemplate our own obligations to defend rights and liberties.

Judith was like other biblical women who witnessed injustices toward their people and intervened decisively on their behalf. Judith lived in Bethulia, a town that had been under siege by the Assyrian army. The Jewish elders of the community chose to surrender. Judith was angry that surrender was even considered as a feasible choice. She sought out the enemy, instead, and requested a meeting with the Assyrian general in charge. When they met, the general viewed Judith as his prey but at the end of their encounter Judith slayed him and consequently his army’s campaign ended. Judith’s actions saved the community and stopped the Assyrians’ advance to Jerusalem. Had Jerusalem been conquered, Israel would have had to submit to worshipping the Assyrian king as a god. 

Religious freedom was a cornerstone in the daily lives of the people of Bethulia. Judith’s story provides a key into the traditions and practices of devout Jewish women. She followed the laws of kashrut in preparing meals and recited blessings in her everyday life. Judith observed the Sabbath as a day of rest and private prayer. At public prayer gatherings, she along with others in the community wore the customary sackcloth and placed ashes on her head. On other occasions she practiced ritual water immersion and observed the lunar festivals.

Like the Bethulia Jewish community and Judith, we must decide whether or not to surrender. For us the dilemma is to concede or not to our instincts of silence and inaction in light of the multiple threats we face as Jews and as citizens. These threats serve to fuel our personal anxieties.

Our anxieties are convincingly linked to society’s cycle of two phases of functioning, the effective and the poor. In a society that functions poorly, individuals experience chronic and unremitting stress. A characteristic of such a society is that it puts pressure on the most vulnerable. Today we have groups like the Jews and other religious minorities, the LGBT community and racial groups that are pressured by discrimination, intimidation and increasingly restrictive laws. At the same time, solving real problems are ignored since they require more concerted effort and making tough decisions.

In a society that functions effectively, in contrast, the citizens don’t experience chronic stress. Leaders and lawmakers tackle real problems; progress occurs and pressure on minorities is avoided. Knowing these important facts, we should be armed with determination to identify real concrete problems and to advocate for workable solutions. 

Our lawmakers determine which problems to undertake or not. As concerned citizens we are on solid ground to urge them to direct attention to important issues. Do we have a keen interest for improving education, protecting the environment, identifying alternative sources of energy, or advancing the rights of workers? There are many real problems that need solutions. The Kansas school districts, for example, are in urgent need of funding equity, though this has not happened even with the Kansas Supreme Court intervening to move the legislative process to a workable solution. We and other living organisms need clean air and water to thrive and to stay alive. Decontrolling once banned crop pesticides, however, has the potential to put both humans and animals at risk. Opening previously protected land for drilling fossil fuels has taken the place of considering sources for clean energy. Ten years into the recovery from the last recession, our economy lags behind the recovery from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Workers need jobs that pay living wages and not jobs alone. 

Former President Obama encouraged citizens to remain engaged with lawmakers even after the election season ended. While this makes good sense, some lawmakers are more focused on ensuring individual rights and on solving legitimate problems than others. We must identify these capable individuals, communicate with them regularly and support their many efforts on our behalf.

It has been said; “In a democracy, the highest office is the office of the citizen.” Let’s use our “office” to defend our freedoms. We have the power to shift the focus from targeting at risk minority groups to solving real problems. Like our Jewish ancestors through millennia, we must choose between surrendering to the status quo or working insistently for change that benefits both the vulnerable and everyone.




Mary Greenberg, Ph.D. serves on the State of Kansas Holocaust Commission. Her speaking engagements on preventing anti-Semitism, and the link between anti-Semitism and leadership are based on her research that advances the study of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.