Rabbi David Saperstein: Re-inventing Chanukah in America

December 27, 2011Molly Benoit

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” column on December 24, 2011.

This is a fascinating time and place in Jewish history. American culture, politics, academia and businesses give greater embrace of and acceptance to Jews and Judaism than at any other time or place in Diaspora history. For most Jews, the sense of being an outsider, a stranger in our own land, has greatly dissipated in the past two generations – and for many disappeared almost altogether. The slight awkwardness I remember feeling as a child at Chanukah time in that we did not share in the customs, rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations of the majority of our neighbors, school friends, and communities is not, to my awareness, shared by my children. America’s pluralistic embrace of Jewish life, rituals, and customs such as Chanukah makes for a comfort level in our celebrations that continues to mark America as the country in which we have known more rights, more freedoms, more acceptance, and more opportunities than we had known for 2,000 years.

And yet…. I remember in 1998, my wife and I made a conscious decision to extend our sabbatical in Israel with our then elementary school aged children, through Chanukah and Christmas. We sought to give them the experience they could not have in America – of what it felt like to live in a thoroughly Jewish environment, with Chanukiot (menorahs) in windows in almost every house; no musak Christmas carols in stores and on the streets; little of the commercialism that permeates America’s celebration of these winter holidays. It is an experience that few Jews in this remarkable land of ours have, save a handful of self-isolated communities among Orthodox Jews. There was a spiritual calmness to that time in Israel that left a lasting impression. Even the intensity of the Christmas celebrations of the Christian community in the Holy Land had a dignity and solemnity that is so often missing here. And something else. With all the acceptance of Chanukah in American life, it is not the Chanukah that we would like our children or American culture to embrace. Much of the watered down, lowest common denominator, commercialized aspects that have so impacted Christmas in America have impacted Chanukah. Sixty years ago, my father, a beloved congregational rabbi, wrote a very widely read, much discussed article as to why Jews should not have Christmas trees, or what were then called by some Chanukah bushes, in their homes. Not only did it dilute the authenticity of Chanukah, but it belittled the meaning of Christmas to arrogate another’s religious symbol by turning a tree representing essential aspects of the Christmas holiday into a secular commercial, let alone a Jewish, symbol.

In the midst of the gift-giving, song singing, menorah lighting, miracle story of the one day of oil in the menorah of the re-consecrated Temple in Jerusalem lasting for eight days, much of the essential meaning of Chanukah is lost. Without judgment on the veracity of the legend of the oil, it is a story that first appears in Jewish texts centuries after the events. But the events themselves and the meaning given by the rabbis speak across the centuries to us today: the risks and gains inherent in the struggle for freedom against tyranny; the human passion for religious liberty; the dangers of struggles for freedom spilling over into new forms of extremism; the divisiveness between those who seek multiculturalism and syncretism of attractive aspects of the various cultures in which we live and those who seek cultural purity; and the effort never to let militarism, as necessary as it may be, to become an end in itself and define our character or identity (“Not by might, not by power but my strength says the Eternal God.” Zachariah 4:6).

Let’s hope in the coming years, the more authentic religious and historical aspects of Chanukah – and Christmas – will engage the moral imagination of the American people.

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