Q. If Chanukah is about freedom of religion, what is religious freedom?
A. The individual should be free to believe or not to believe, to practise or not to practise. These days that is a given, but it wasn’t always so when religious and political regimes decided they could pry into people’s inmost thoughts and to punish them if they were not prepared to commit themselves to a particular type of faith.
The Marranos are evidence that Jews tried to maintain their own beliefs in private whilst publicly professing what their tormentors wanted. If the regime found out, the Jews were punished. Since the Enlightenment, religious belief has become a private affair of the individual conscience.
Freedom of religion has a wider ambit, however, in terms of the right to function in the public arena. To function – unmolested. To erect and maintain houses of worship – in safety. To teach children and adults – without interference.
Again a given in the modern democratic context, but we remember the days when Judaism was proscribed or persecuted in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. The right to freedom of religion in democratic societies even extends further, to being seen and heard in the market place of ideas. In all these senses, freedom of religion owes a great deal to the Maccabean struggle.