Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

December 17, 2006

 “A Brave New People”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

A couple of weeks ago, the Iraq Study Group (also known as the Baker/ Hamilton Commission) issued its recommendations about how the United States ought to find its way out of the debacle that is the war in Iraq. The report states, among its findings, that the United States “cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts… [including]President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

In our day and age, the state of Israel can be seen either as the oppressor, or the oppressed, depending on how one casts the debate. The way to peace for Israel has never been easy in any century, nor is it easy now. But the way to peace for Israel and in the world, while never easy, is also very simple, as it has always been.

The story of Hanukkah is the story of a group of people who were being forced to not only give up their own beliefs and practices, but to adopt a set of practices that they found abhorrent. Being spiritually evolved people—we hope—we recount these ancient stories with a critical eye. While we appreciate the underlying tale that affirms the right of each person or community to practice their religion as they see fit, we cannot rejoice in the defeat of their enemies the way the ancient writers expected their readers to. Yes, we are happy that the Maccabees won freedom for their people—at least for a while, until the Romans came along—but we don’t enjoy stories of the Seleucid soldiers suffering miserable deaths, nor do we share the ancient Jews’ hatred for the Greek gods and goddesses that the Seleucids worshipped.

The Maccabees were not unlike our pilgrim mothers and fathers who came to our shores four hundred years ago seeking religious freedom. They sought freedom for themselves, but it wasn’t always obvious to them that it was just as important to extend religious freedom to others as it was for them to seize it for themselves.

And so, we look back on our ancestors, whether they be the ancient ancestors of Jewish heritage, or the less ancient heritage of Protestant Christian pilgrims, and we see with great clarity that they are both freedom fighters and not freedom fighters. The Maccabee children looked down upon Greek religion as much as the people of the Seleucid empire looked down upon Jewish religion. But even though they may not have acted at all times and in all ways by the highest ideals we would set for them, they were right—absolutely right—to stand up for their right to worship according to their conscience as individuals and as a people.

The story that Arden read from the Third Book of Maccabees adds a useful dimension to the story about how we as individuals interact with other cultures. The king in that story—from a generation earlier than the time of the Hanukkah story—that king seems to respect the practices of Judaism. He comes to the Temple to honor the Jewish god. He makes the sacrifices that are proper. The scripture says that he behaved exactly as expected. It was, in fact, not his disdain for Judaism that made him want to enter the inner sanctuary, but his admiration of what he saw. He had been very respectful of everything that the Jewish priests had asked of him, and now, as the king, he felt that there was no place in his kingdom that he should be barred from entering. As a ruler, it probably made him suspicious of the people to be told that there was a place where he was not allowed. What were they hiding in there? What was it that they didn’t want him to see?

I think of the Muslim mosques today, here in the United States, where if we were told that we were not allowed to go to a certain place, that we were not allowed to hear or see certain things, we might become quite nervous, given the fear so many rightly have about what might be happening in these religious centers. There was a furor last year when a Danish newspaper published cartoons of Mohammed. In a sense, they were like the king who felt he could enter the Jewish holy of holies. Who decides whether we are allowed to criticize or enter into the holy space of another group of people? When do we celebrate their angry response as the noble quest for freedom and when do we judge their angry response as fanaticism to be feared? It’s a difficult and complex question in our increasingly globalized world.

It’s easy for us to identify with the persecuted when they are far away from us in time and place, but when we actually live in the here and now with other people who have beliefs and practices different from our own, it becomes quite a messy business to know the right way forward.

As Unitarian Universalists, we believe in the right of individual conscience in religion. But we don’t like that there are Muslims who believe, as a religious conviction, that they are acting for the highest good by killing Jews and Americans in suicide missions. We don’t like that there are Christians who believe that homosexuality is a horrifying evil and a grave sin. We don’t like that there are Jews who believe that the land of Israel is theirs because their God decreed it several thousand years ago. We not only don’t like these ideas, but we have seen how dangerous they are. They are ideas that literally kill people.

Earlier, I read from a paper delivered by Carol Quillen of the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University. She deals wisely with the fact that while we all value religious freedom for ourselves, we do not always want it for others whole-heartedly. “True tolerance,” she writes, “means resisting the lure of certitude without ever surrendering our commitments.” Quillen’s explanation of what she means by tolerance strikes a thoughtful balance between our commitments to our own convictions and the needs of a pluralistic society.

A Muslim woman in England was fired from her job as a school teacher recently because she insisted on wearing the veil, called a niqab, which covers the entire face. She did not wear it when she was alone with the children, but did when she was in the presence of an adult male. Jack Straw, the Labour Party leader in the British House of Commons, fueled the story when he said that if a constituent comes to speak to him and she is wearing a “niqab,” he asks her to remove it. He does not wish to speak to a person whose face he is unable to see. He has expressed his opinion that it is bad for British society to have women in public with their faces covered. His remarks have set off heated debate in Britain. Some feel that he is absolutely right—that it is profoundly contrary to our basic Western values to have people separate themselves out in that way. Others agree out of a gender equality argument. They feel that allowing the veil to be worn in public is a societal endorsement of women as second-class citizens. Others see efforts to coerce women not to wear the niqab as clear-cut religious persecution.

These British Muslim women are the Maccabees of today. But it isn’t so easy to say that we wish them to fight for their religious freedom—at least, it isn’t easy for me. Is Jack Straw like the king who insists on entering the holy of holies?

Carol Quillen states that we live in a time when what MOST threatens freedom is not terrorism, but arrogance: the certainty that WE are right and everyone else is wrong. The way out, she says, is to “respect the awe-inspiring dignity of all human beings as ethical self-fashioners” and to “seek the limits to our freedom that the dignity of others establishes.”

So far, the debate about whether or not Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces has not been an issue in this country, but I am quite sure it is a debate that will reach our shores as surely as those pilgrims came across the Atlantic, and as surely as the Beatles came across the Atlantic, and as surely as terrorism came across the Atlantic.

So during this Hanukkah season, may our joy at our own religious freedom be tempered. May we appreciate the story of the Maccabees because it reminds us of how fiercely others before us have fought for the freedom that we take for granted here in this home of liberal faith. May our joy at our own religious freedom be tempered as well by the Maccabee children who look nothing like us, and do not appear today looking anything like the Maccabee children of old.

As we light the menorah, we dance the horah—the dance of freedom and respect for freedom—the dance of fighting for freedom and the limits of freedom. May we ever kindle anew the holy lamps, for ourselves but also for others.