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Article: The Menorah: An ancient symbol of tolerance

Published: December 16, 2016. Author: Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton. Theme:  Social Justice.

About The Author

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton is the Chief Minister of the Great Synagogue in Sydney. He was educated at Cambridge University (MA), London University (PhD) and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (rabbinic ordination). His is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (London) and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. He is married to Hinda Young.

The Menorah: An ancient symbol of tolerance

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I was recently in Rome for the first time. It is a city with so much to offer, and not least to the Jewish visitor. The Jewish community of Rome is ancient; the arrival of Jews in the city was one of the results of the Chanukah story. The victorious Maccabees wanted to make alliances with nearby states, and sent a delegation to Rome in 161 BCE – three years after they had rededicated the Temple, but while they were still fighting the Seleucid Greeks.

Perhaps their Maccabean origins were one reason why the Jews of Rome always used the image of the Menorah to symbolise their community and their faith. Menorot can be seen in the Jewish catacombs in Rome, and decorating the synagogue in nearby Ostia. As more Jews joined the community, brought back as prisoners of war after the Roman invasion of Judea in 63 BCE, the Menorah remained a dominant identifying mark of the Roman Jews.

What did the Jews of Rome see in the Menorah, and its evocation of the Temple and Chanukah? How did it help them preserve their identity as one of the first diaspora communities? First, we need to get past the simplistic understanding of Chanukah as a ‘Jewish Christmas’, a winter festival of gift giving, and look at the story closely. It can seem like a celebration of the violent rejection of all religious interaction; a sign that the Maccabees were not prepared to tolerate Greek influence and overthrew it by force.

The truth is much more subtle. The Maccabees did not object to engagement with some Greek culture and ideas, as long as that did not undermine or replace commitment to Torah. Before Antiochus IV attempted to supress traditional Judaism and replace it with Greek worship, there had been a fruitful period of interplay between ‘Athens and Jerusalem’. That positive interaction continued long after the Maccabean Revolt; for example, in Aristotle’s influence on Maimonides and among the Jewish neo-Platonists. Indeed, the Maccabees helped make this possible, because Jews could embrace the positive elements of Greek civilisation when they felt that their sacred heritage was not under threat.

The use of the Menorah as a symbol by the Jews of Rome can be seen as a representation of the best approach to two cultures living productively together. Burial in catacombs is an Etruscan tradition, re-adopted more widely by Romans in the second century CE, and the Jews adapted it to their own purposes because, as the catacombs are underground, burial there is acceptable in Jewish law. They buried in a Roman way, in a halakhic manner, and with Jewish symbols. Similarly, the synagogue at Ostia shows Roman architectural and decorative features, plus the use of Jewish motifs – including the Menorah.

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The fusion of Roman and Jewish, without religious surrender, symbolised by the Menorah, can be a model for a better approach to different communities living alongside one another in contemporary societies. Our first attempt at multiculturalism is widely seen as a failure. It created separation and ghettos, and has helped with the rise of some of the violent extremism we are enduring and trying to combat. There has too much emphasis on difference and not on commonality, too much on distinctions and not enough on shared values. We do not want to supress cultural diversity, but we must foster what unites us, too.

The picture of a Menorah in Roman catacomb, or at the top of a Corinthian pillar in an ancient synagogue can point to a better way. We must respect the religious and cultural norms and regulations of the faith communities we live alongside. If a Muslim woman, of her own choice, wants to wear a head scarf, or a Christian woman wants to wear a cross around her neck, or a Jewish man wants to wear a kippah, it would be profoundly wrong to stop them from doing so.

At the same time, we all must care about the wellbeing of all Australians, uphold Australian freedoms and sustain Australian democracy. Our personal commitments must not be supressed, and we must do all we can to prevent the religious or cultural freedoms of others being supressed, but the nation we all belong to, and the society we all live in, has a right to our loyalty and support. That is how religious and cultural violence can be avoided and the best symbiosis can be maintained.