“Merry Christmas,” we’ve heard for weeks.
For Jews living in predominantly Christian societies, Christmas evokes responses ranging from joy to alienation. Some Jews encounter Christmas as a civic winter holiday for all, when grace and good cheer help sooth the social soul. Others experience the Christmas season as a time to tolerate excess consumerism, or feel that society’s adoption of this Christian holiday leaves Jews at the curb. Some Jews feel about Christmas much like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Bah humbug.”
So what’s a Jew to do? Some write music: half of the top Christmas carols were composed by Jews. Others honor “Jewish tradition” of Chinese food and a movie. Even more traditional is recourse to humor. Spoof codes of halacha (Jewish law) now explicate the tradition of Chinese and a movie; a whole Hilchot Christmas arose to guide Jewish life amidst mistletoe-laden office parties and Christmas consumerism. Naturally for Talmudic exegesis, these fake legal codes have competing versions and even more competing versions.
Healthy humor aside, occasional Jewish humbug at Christmas is no laughing matter: it’s worthy of serious reflection.
The birth of Jesus is for many Christians the purest form of divine grace: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). While in Christendom Jesus’ birth evokes “grace and truth,” to some Jews the idea is foreign (God becomes incarnate), alienating (recalling history’s proselytism and forced conversion), and threatening (recalling condemnation as “Christ killers”). On the other hand, many modern Christians embrace Christmas only with the loving and angelic hope of “Peace on earth, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).
Grace, truth, peace and good will – what could be bad? What’s more, these Christmas values are no less Jewish. Atop Mount Sinai, Moses heard God speak Thirteen Attributes of divinity, firstly that God is rachum v’chanun (merciful and gracious) (Ex. 34:6). Shalom v’rei’ut (peace and good will) are traditional blessings for newly wedded Jewish couples. The Amidah liturgy of Sim Shalom evokes all of these values: “Grant peace everywhere, goodness and blessing, grace, loving kindness and mercy to us and all Israel, Your people. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance. For by Your light You have given us a Torah of life, loving kindness, righteousness and blessing, mercy and life and peace.”
Grace, truth, peace and good will – Christmas values, and also Jewish values. So if core values of Christmas beckon the Jewish heart, why kvetch over Christmas? If a Jew feels left out of the Christmas party, then what’s a Jew to do?
Modernity’s leading apostle of inter-religious understanding, Raimon Panikkar, teaches that religions are reality maps whose symbolic stories, while particular to individual faith traditions, embed spiritual functions that are transcendent. When we identify a spiritual function common to different religions, we can better navigate another religion’s reality map using the spiritual compass of our own. In Panikkar’s thinking, the function of divine grace on the Jewish reality map is much the same one that inspires Christmas for Christians, even if its dogmatic setting and language are different. Thus, even if some Jews don’t resonate with the Christmas narrative of God made flesh, Jews can intuit the spiritual function of grace – using how Jewish tradition embeds grace – and in that way journey authentically with Christians celebrating Christmas. Jews and Christians can use this same approach to intuit how purification and renewal serve similar spiritual functions on the Christian reality maps of Good Friday and Easter as they do on the Jewish reality maps of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Traditions and holidays are not interchangeable – a Jew is a Jew, and a Christian is a Christian – but spiritual functions of these traditions are mutually intelligible. That’s no accident: transcendence is the aim of all religion and spirituality. In Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s words, “Religion is not reality, but only a pointer to the infinite … Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”
Today’s pointer happens to be Christmas – but the point is grace, truth, peace and good will for all.
So to Christian readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Christmas celebrations. And to Jewish readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Chinese and a movie.
Last week, in the midst of an independent study meeting with a fourth grader, I was exploring the topic of mixing up holiday traditions, and trying to gauge my student’s opinions. Because it had just recently shown up on my Facebook feed, I shared with her the website for a Menorah tree – the latest innovation in cultural appropriation during the December holiday season. When I asked her what she thought, my incredibly bright and thoughtful student responded, “I think I’d need to know more about the origins of both symbols before I could decide.” No knee-jerk reaction. No embracing of the commercialism or rejecting of the “non authentic.” Just a considered response that indicated the need to understand more about symbols, where they come from, and what they mean to people, before reaching a personal conclusion.
One of the things that I’ve noticed this year, with the confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, creating Thanksgivukkah for those celebrating in the USA, is that I’ve had many thoughtful conversations like this over the past few weeks, with middle schoolers, high schoolers, and adults alike. Yes, people are having fun with their “Menurkeys” and blended Thanksgiving meal menus this year, but what I’m finding is that people are asking really good questions and having really good conversations about the meaning of the holidays, what the symbols represent, where a valid connection can be made, conceptually, between parts of the Thanksgiving myth and parts of the Hanukkah myth (as so eloquently laid out by my RWB colleague, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, earlier this week). When my congregants had these conversations with me, it has provided many opportunities to share aspects of Hanukkah at a deeper level. People are asking – they want to know. They want to find ways to make it all as meaningful as possible and, in order to do that, they are looking to mine the riches of our traditions, not simply invent and make up new ones. That’s why, in my congregation this Shabbat we’ll be celebrating and highlighting Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in one of monthly ‘Ritual Lab’ services, providing another opportunity for our community to examine both holidays, compare and contrast and learn together while also celebrating Shabbat together (courtesy of my colleague, Rabbi Joe Eiduson, who has put together an innovative weaving of materials).
So, while I’ve read other articles where the authors wish that Hanukkah could just be Hanukkah (you know, that authentic Jewish holiday where we play a 10th Century Anglo Saxon gambling game with a spinning top, eat fried foods common to the cuisine of Germany and Central Europe, and sing a festival anthem set to the melody of a Medieval German marching tune!), I believe otherwise. This year’s juxtaposition of secular and Jewish calendar has opened up rich and meaningful conversations that might not otherwise have taken place. More people know a little bit more about their Jewish heritage and traditions than they otherwise might have.
There’s something else that I think we might consider dropping when we talk about Hanukkah. Let’s stop describing it as ‘a minor Jewish holiday’. The origins of this statement may be halachic in nature – the rabbis did not require Hanukkah to be like some of our other Festivals where we do no work and follow many of the other restrictions of a Sabbath day. They did insert some additional liturgy to mark the holiday, but not at the scale of many of our other festival days. This move was partially historical, but also somewhat political – there were reasons that the Rabbis were, in fact, somewhat ambivalent about the Hasmonean rule that emerged from the Maccabee victory and, while the festival was already firmly established, they did not want to overemphasize its importance in the Jewish calendar.
However today, when I hear people talk about Hanukkah only being a ‘minor’ holiday, what I hear is more of a disdain for the commercial competition with Christmas. But too often, what we are actually telling our communities, inadvertently, is not ‘don’t go over the top with the secular and commercial aspects of the holiday’ but rather, ‘this isn’t really one of our important holidays.’ And so, in fact, we end up sending the message that Hanukkah cannot and should not be held up, embraced, celebrated, enriched and enjoyed (and yes, that means the light-hearted commercial kind of enjoyment too) as a meaningful winter holiday of hope and light in the midst of the dark and the cold. We send the message that only Christmas can do that at this time of year – our little holiday simply can’t ‘compete’. Why do we want to impart that message? If having an inflatable, lit-up menorah on your front lawn, or a menorah tree in your house, eight nights of gift-giving, or creating new secular-styled ‘pop’ Hanukkah songs makes for a joyful celebration in your home and extends the time you spend thinking about and celebrating this Jewish holiday, isn’t that a good thing?
As we arrive at erev Hanukkah, and erev Thanksgiving, tonight, I wish you all a wonderful, enjoyable, and meaningful Thanksgivukkah!