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The Merits of Hanukkah-Christmas

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis is the spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine

Some people find the term “Judeo-Christian tradition” problematic. While accepting the integrity and beauty of each religion, they demand that Judaism and Christianity only be seen distinctly, as parallel traditions and never as a hyphenated one. Sometimes, Jews fear that the semantic order of “Judeo-Christian” implies that Judaism is merely an adjectival precedent or a theological shading to a more dominant Christianity. Non-Jews often respond that they are puzzled by this interpretation, seeing the order as merely historical, and yet still believing that Christianity should be considered the more normative religion in our society.

Of course, our society is more than Jewish and Christian. The inclusion of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and so many others in religious dialogue enriches the spiritual tapestry of America in ways not yet imaginable.

Nevertheless, the bond between Judaism and Christianity is closest--historically and religiously.

At this time of year, some Jews fight creches (and Hanukkah menorahs) in court as well as the “Christmasization” of Hanukkah within the Jewish community. Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas”, they say, but a minor holiday whose message for Jews is far less important than Christmas’ message for Christians. And yet, so many Jews delight, especially children, in seeing large menorahs in malls and the new Hanukkah stamp on their mail.

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How important is Hanukkah? First of all, Hanukkah is observed by more Jews than two traditional major holidays, Sukkot and Shavuot, and it connects American Jews to their heritage more profoundly than at most other times of the year.

Second, Hanukkah’s central message is precisely what Jews need to hear at Christmastime in America. For this holiday celebrates the courage and passion of a few of their ancestors, led by the Maccabees, who in the Second Century before the Common Era, defeated the Syrian Hellenist occupiers of Judea and won the right to be religiously and culturally autonomous. Moreover, the Maccabees and their followers fought Jewish assimilationists whose ties to Greek culture were far stronger than the average American Jew’s interest in Christmas.

So Hanukkah is the American Jewish holiday par excellence for this time of year, since it proclaims the ideal of religious freedom as well as a minority’s right to resist total assimilation into the majority’s culture. Thus, Hanukkah needs to become a more significant celebration on the contemporary Jewish and American calendars, with a message that speaks to all minorities about pride in oneself and to the majority about pluralism and inclusiveness.

There is a third way in which Hanukkah’s role has been changed. Much as some Jews might prefer that all religious observances be eliminated from public education, the reality is that non--Jewish children are learning about Hanukkah, Judaism and religious pluralism at this time of year through singing Hanukkah songs and seeing Hanukkah decorations alongside Christmas ones in the classroom.

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Thus, America is developing a Hanukkah-Christmas tradition. While it should never become a substitute for Jews observing Hanukkah and Christians celebrating Christmas authentically, this tradition is becoming a part of American civil religion along with Thanksgiving and other quasi-religious American holidays.

Both Hanukkah and Christmas, though not as closely related as Passover and Easter, share powerful symbols. The enduring light of the Hanukkah (menorah) and the Star of Bethlehem are metaphors for the power of divinity in the world. Both holidays are based on traditional miracle stories--for Jews the lamp of faith was not extinguished, and for Christians, the divine and human could be one.


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