Sometimes there is a fine line between not saying the whole truth, and saying something incorrect. I have found this to true of Chanukah in particular, and the way it is presented to the outside world by some well-meaning Chabad representatives.
For example, in one article, a leading Chabad rabbi is quoted as saying that “The world’s largest Hanukkah menorah stands as a symbol of freedom of democracy and delivers the message of light over darkness and freedom over oppression.”
Another article, this time from an official news site, is entitled: “Menorah: A Symbol of Religious Freedom.” It describes how Chanukah brings “ ... a message of peace and religious liberty to the public square.” Moreover, an official spokesman is quoted as saying that “ ... the menorah is a universal symbol of freedom and independence which totally conforms with the American ideal.”
These statements clearly say that the message of Chanuka is “religious freedom.” In effect, what this means to the average reader is to declare that the Torah teaches that Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans, and voodoo-worshippers should all be free to worship just as they please, and no one should ever in any way hinder the religious worship of anyone else—and that this is the message of Chanuka (G–d forbid).
But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The concept of an inherent right to express one’s religion as one wishes is not a Torah value. In fact, the concept of religious freedom as a fundamental human right is of recent historical origin. My understanding is that religious freedom has existed as a matter of government policy in various ages and societies, but it only became identified as a principle of inherent value with the rise of the Enlightenment movement. The principle of religious freedom for all is also closely tied with other secular ideas like pluralism and multiculturalism.
To be sure, to a great extent these ideas have significantly benefited the Jewish people, in that they have enabled us to observe the Mitzvos without the persecution that we suffered under the likes of the Spanish Inquisition or the Communist regime. But that merely makes these ideas useful and beneficial; it doesn’t make the concept of religious freedom inherently worthy.
And like all philosophies not directly rooted in Torah, the concept of religious freedom has had its downside. Until the rise of the Enlightenment, state-legislated discrimination against Jews was common in all European countries. The result was that assimilation into gentile society was extremely rare. Once the influence of the Enlightenment became widespread, assimilation did, as well. This was the reason that the first Chabad Rebbe, the Alter Rebbe, preferred the rule of the Czar to that of Napoleon, for although the Jews would suffer from draconian decrees under the Czar, they were safe from assimilation, while under Napoleon, freedom from oppression would be accompanied with the very tempting enticement to assimilate (Napoleon u-Tekufato, Mevorach, pp. 182–183).
Moreover, the most basic knowledge of Judaism demonstrates that the Torah rejects the notion of inherent religious freedom. When the Jewish people had the ability to maintain full military control over the Holy Land (which they do not possess today), the Torah mandates what in modern-day language would be called a theocracy. Jews who were seen committing idolatry were penalized harshly. Pagan statues and temples of pagan worship were illegal. Only non-Jews who committed to follow the Noahide laws were allowed to remain in the Land; those who refused, forfeited that right.
Can any of this be done today? No. But the reason for that is that we are in exile. We don’t live in what the Torah views as an ideal world—one in which Jews and non-Jews alike universally accept the Torah alone as the pure Truth, and follow the laws that the Torah mandates for them (with Jews following the Code of Jewish Law, and non-Jews following the Noahide Laws). But our holy prophets predict that this will take place in the age of Moshiach, and Jews hope and pray every day for this day to come.
This is not to say that the Torah seeks to promote an age of coercion. We don’t want Moshiach to come so we can force everyone to accept belief in the Torah, because “Its [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). Rather, Moshiach will reveal the truth of Hashem’s existence and of Torah to all mankind. Mankind will then give up adherence to other religions willingly, because their former adherents will recognize the other religions to be false, and realize the absolute truth of Torah. Moshiach will then effect universal peace by settling all the quarrels between the nations. The reason he will be able to do so is that all mankind will recognize him as a holy man, and thus be confident in the justice of his rulings.
In any case, the true message of Chanuka is the exact opposite of the concept of religious freedom that treats all religions as equal. Chanuka is about the Macabbees’ insistence that Torah is the absolute truth, and Hashem alone should be worshipped, and bringing the entire world to recognize this necessity, albeit via peaceful means (for more explanation, see here).
(This article was posted on shturem.net here.)