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Hanukah and Christmas
Special to the RabbiDebra.com E-Newsletter
by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
This past week, I attended a pre-Hanukah party at my son, Emmett’s, Jewish pre-school. At the celebration, a mother informed me that a great number of interfaith and Jewish families she knows are celebrating both Hanukah and Christmas. It has proved confusing for her children, who can no longer assume that Jews celebrate Hanukah. Her daughter had wondered aloud whether Emmett’s family celebrated Christmas, and the mom, knowing I am a rabbi, laughingly said, “I doubt it!”
This news was disturbing to me, but not shocking. “Christmakah” has found acceptance in the popular culture -- not just in the O.C., but across America, among both gentiles and Jews.
For Jews and non-Jews alike, there are many lovely aspects of the Christmas season. You don’t have to be Christian to appreciate beautiful decorations, sparkling lights, frequent parties, and good holiday cheer. But Christmas also represents a challenge for Jews. Will we retain our identity? Will we relate superficially to the religious symbols of others, or more deeply to our own?
Christmas is a beautiful holiday, but it is not my holiday. I can support my Christian friends and wish them “Merry Christmas,” but I cannot join in their theology, nor their understanding of the birth of Jesus.
Hanukah, while a significant historical holiday, is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. It doesn’t have the importance or pageantry in the Jewish community that Christmas has for so many of our neighbors. Although both holidays fall around the time of the winter solstice, they have different foods, symbols, and ultimately very different messages.
Following are some tips about how to make this holiday season enjoyable and meaningful as a Jew, a prospective convert to Judaism, a Christian partner in a Jewish household, or anyone interested in honoring and exploring Judaism.
If you admire or feel attached to certain Christmas holiday traditions:
Not every tradition has to be abandoned. If you love baking Christmas cookies, change the coloring, check to be sure you have kosher ingredients, and they can be Hanukah cookies. If you love singing carols, learn some Jewish holiday tunes and volunteer to put on a Hanukah show at your local Jewish home for the aged.
You may be able to get your “fix” on a different holiday. If you used to love decorating your tree, then go all out in the fall decorating your Sukkah. Or, if your attachment is to trees, wreaths, and their smells, then plant trees for Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. (Of course, it’s fine to put up some Hanukah decorations and banners, as well.)
Create a new Christmas holiday tradition as a Jew. Offer to trade vacation time with Christian colleagues, so they can have their special holiday off. Volunteer at a hospital or homeless shelter on Christmas, when they are likely to be understaffed. Join a Jewish group engaging in tikkun olam (social repair and justice). Later, get together with a bunch of friends, as many Jews do, for a movie and Chinese food on Christmas afternoon.
If you are joining Judaism from another faith tradition, mourn your loss - and put it in context. Once you commit to living as a Jew, you probably won’t be attending midnight mass and you certainly won’t be participating in all the prayers or accepting the Eucharist. It is the end of one era in your life and you may have some grieving to do. However, it is also the beginning of an era and of many new and wonderful spiritual expressions around the year – from Shabbat to Shavuot, from Brit to Bar Mitzvah.
To stay connected with Christian family and friends:
It’s fine to continue exchanging gifts. You can give Christmas gifts to Christian friends and relatives, and it would be thoughtful if they choose to give you a Hanukah gift.
Feel free to attend your friends’ and family’s parties and special dinners. You can eat selectively to protect your kashrut (kosher) observance, and you can listen respectfully as someone says grace, invoking Jesus. Rabbi Neal Weinberg of the University of Judaism helps new and prospective Jews by choice set appropriate boundaries with this bit of humor and advice: “Very rarely do you get confused at someone else’s birthday party and start to think it might be your birthday, too. Christmas is someone else’s celebration. You can attend, you can be glad for them, you can raise your glass in a toast to good will toward all, while still remaining clear that this is their holiday, not yours.”
To enhance your Hanukah celebration:
Don’t treat Hanukah as a “mini-Christmas.” Enjoy it on its own terms, for its own messages. This is the holiday when the Maccabees fought the dominance of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. They interacted with Hellenism and even practiced some aspects of it, but when they were ordered to give up Shabbat or circumcision for the sake of uniformity and conformity, they rejected the government’s claim on them and fought for religious freedom. It would be a horrible irony if Jews today decided to ”fit in” with the general culture on the very holiday that celebrates the bravery of people willing to die for the right to be different.
Study the story of Hanukah.
Invite people over for candlelighting. Let it be a communal event, with all the “Hanukah trimmings”: latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyot (jelly donuts), dreydl (spinning top) games with chocolate coins as prizes. Ask each person to bring one fact, teaching, or song about Hanukah which they suspect will be new to others.
Supply enough Hanukiot for every family member and every guest to light candles. Let the candles in your window testify to the miracle of the lights.
Meditate on light. On faith. On miracles. On the few, through righteousness, overcoming the powerful many.
Chag Urim Sameach!
May you enjoy a happy Festival of Lights!
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What was the miracle of Hanukah? Was it the unlikely victory of the few fighting for religious freedom over the mighty army they opposed? Was it the unlikely coalition of pietists, assimilationists, and centrists who all shared in that fight? Was it the miracle that a cruse of oil, large enough to light the menorah in the Temple for only one day, lasted for eight days – the exact period of time needed to purify more oil? Yes, yes, and yes!
Miracles Meditations for Hanukah
And how did that one cruse happen to be preserved? Was it a miracle, a gift, from God? Or perhaps a priest or visitor to the Temple hid that cruse just before the enemy entered and desecrated the holy site, the way Jews hid and buried Torah scrolls during the Holocaust. Heroes acted on the hope that victory, somehow, would come, and Light would again be wanted. Such faith in the face of imminent destruction is nothing short of miraculous.
It is a miracle that Jews, in the days of the Maccabees and today, have managed to survive despite the appeal and acceptance of the general culture (disappearance through assimilation) and, equally, despite the ugly under-belly of intolerance in society (destruction through antiSemitism, oppression, and war).
It is a miracle that Jews who love and absorb the dominant culture are nevertheless willing to die for the right to remain Jews.
It is a miracle that people possessed of few resources dare to do great things. Remember: a small band of fighters, a tiny cruse of oil, one “little” idea can change everything.
The Maccabbees might have kept the Temple dark for another week, waiting for enough purified oil to be prepared, so that the menorah could shine uninterrupted. But they started with what little they had. They did what they could, and God did the rest.
We talk about the Hanukah miracle, but Hanukah miracles abound. My father, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, is only partly joking when he says, “The real miracle of Hanukah is that five sons listened to one father!”
This season, let us remember the miracles that happened “during that season at this time.” And let us remember, too, the Hanukah miracles that happen still today: miracles of commitment, bravery, faith, light, loyalty to the holy, and opposition to the unholy.
The following are meditations on the miracles of Hanukah, day by day. I have tried to imagine those first eight days in the rededicated Temple. What ideas and emotions came up, when the cruse lasted longer than anyone had a right to expect? What was the consequent call to action?
Day 1 – Miracle Meditation for the First Candle and the First Day of Hanukah
You could argue that there was no miracle on the first day. If the cruse had enough oil to last for one day, then the light of the first day was natural, normal. Only the light on subsequent days was supernatural, miraculous.
But that misses the essential miracle: that we have light at all, that we are here at all, that what we need comes to us and serves us – predictably, just has we have come to rely on and expect.
Breath sustains me. It’s a regular occurrence. It happens thousands of times a day. And it is still a miracle.
The light of the first candle thus reminds us of all our “mundane” miracles.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the first candle or during the first day of Hanukah and consider:
What are the miracles in the “facts” and “entitlements” and “normal” progress of my daily existence?
Day 2 – Miracle Meditation for the Second Candle and the Second Day of Hanukah
The miracle of the second candle is one of surprise, joy, and delight. With the benefit of hindsight, and with the story so entrenched in Jewish culture and consciousness, we have to work to imagine the shock and celebration that must have ensued when the light burned past its time.
Picture the scene: Jews are gathered around the newly purified Temple. They hold one another, celebrating the victory, supporting one another over the losses. The light that is about to go out in the Menorah represents another loss, another bit of damage inflicted by the enemy. They want to bask in the Light and the victory for as long as it will last.
There is a debate among the Jews over whether to continue fighting for complete political independence, or to be satisfied with having beaten the enemy back. The flame of the Menorah, now about to go out, is a symbol and situation that either side could invoke. “We have our menorah back: purify the oil, focus on holy, and light the flame of faith again.” Or: “we must endure more darkness. Therefore, purify the oil, focus on the holy, and don’t abandon the fight until it is done. “
Before any of these thoughts are spoken, a buzz starts to go through the crowd. First one person and then another realizes, that the flame has been burning “too long.” There is more light, more hope, than they had dared to expect. Soon everyone is cheering and singing. The Light will not go out! The political choice is still before them, but the spiritual promise matters more. The Light will not go out!
Take a few quiet moments in front of the second candle or during the second day of Hanukah and consider:
What are the miracles of joy, surprise, and delight in your life?
Was there a time when you were you recovering from loss, and preparing to face the future, when you got a gift – a sudden surge of hope, of Light, a promise for the future?
Day 3 – Miracle Meditation for the Third Candle and the Third Day of Hanukah
The third candle is a time of trepidation. The community witnessed a miracle: an extra day of light. But would it last?
Each of us, no matter how pious or secure, has fears and doubts. Yes, God saved me last time, but will I be spared again? Yes, my first child was born healthy, but what if this pregnancy goes wrong? Yes, my needs have been supplied until now, but how will I survive in this economy?
Some of the answers depend on us; the Maccabbees succeeded and are celebrated because they took action. But when the action is taken – e.g., the cruse is lit – sometimes all you can do it wait and watch. And the only question is: how you will wait? Will you be sick with worry, or can you say with the Psalmist, “you maintain my fate, God…I have a goodly heritage…therefore, my heart is glad, my spirit rejoices, my flesh also dwells secure” (Psalms 16:9)?
Take a few quiet moments in front of the third candle or during the third day of Hanukah and consider:
What miracles have you experienced in times of trepidation?
What were your sources of strength then? What were your lessons? Do you consider those miracles?
Day 4 – Miracle Meditation for the Fourth Candle and on the Fourth Day of Hanukah
The fourth day represents a time of celebration and confidence. A chazakah, a precedent, has been set. After three days of miraculous Light, trepidation lifts. Relief and joy take its place. We begin to “own” the miracle, to count it as our own.
In serious illness and recovery, there is typically a “fourth day” energy. It may manifest in the fourth week or the fourth month or even on the fourth year anniversary of a diagnosis. But whenever it happens, it represents a shift. You are no longer a “cancer patient,” or a “sick person” or a “drug addict.” You are a survivor; you are a person in recovery; you are someone who has grace and grit enough to claim your miracles. There are no guarantees of what will come tomorrow, but you rest comfortably and gratefully in God’s hands.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the fourth candle or during the fourth day of Hanukah and consider:
When did you “turn a corner” in your faith? Was there a time when you felt you felt you would be OK, regardless of the outcome or circumstances?
Have you ever felt that you received a message or sign or dream (perhaps one that repeated), which offered you comfort and sustained you?
Day 5 – Miracle Meditation for the Fifth Candle and the Fifth Day of Hanukah
Imagine the light burning miraculously in the ancient temple. Day one was daring – they lit the light, knowing it would go out after just one day. Day two was stunning – it lasted!, Day three was nerve-racking – but it lasted again. Day four was celebratory – it brought confidence. Day five was – at least for some – “old news. “
Day five is a “miracle danger zone.” It represents the possibility of ennui, of taking miracles for granted.
When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave public lectures in the evening, he would often begin by saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, a great miracle just happened.” People would lean forward, eager to know about the great miracle that coincided with the arrival of a great spiritual leader. And Heschel would report, "The sun just went down." Some people would laugh; others would shake their heads in disappointment. Then Heschel would speak about “radical amazement,” wonder, and awe.
If a sunset happened once every 50 years, everyone would gather round and watch, enraptured. But it happens every day, and so we take it for granted.
One message of the fifth day is that the miraculous is not limited to the infrequent. In fact, the greatest miracles, and the ones that influence our lives most, are the repetitive daily miracles which become transparent to us.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the fifth candle or during the fifth day of Hanukah and consider:
What are the miracles you experience daily?
Take some time in meditation to truly connect with the miracles that are with you, as the prayer book puts it “every day, constantly, evening, morning, and noon.”
Day 6 – Miracle Meditation for the Sixth Candle and the Sixth Day of Hanukah
The sixth day is a time of reclaiming awe. Following a period when you have taken something for granted, mindfulness can bring not just a restoration of gratitude, but a whole new level of appreciation.
Our bodies are a gift. We know that health is a blessing which must be guarded. Nevertheless, we sleep too little, eat poorly, neglect exercise, and succumb to stress. We take our physical resilience for granted. Then, sometimes, we become ill.
Day six is represented by the energy and thankfulness you feel on the day when you finally feel well, truly well; when you realize that you had forgotten what “feeling well” felt like until just now. Now, you not only appreciate health intellectually and emotionally, you experience health on a whole new level. You will never be able to neglect your self-care so unconsciously again. Now, you know.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the sixth candle or during the sixth day of Hanukah and consider:
Based on your past trials and miracles, what do you know deeply? What do you value deeply?
Are there any limits or boundaries you now choose to set, because of trials or miracles you have experienced?
Day 7 – Miracle Meditation for the Seventh Candle and the Seventh Day of Hanukah
Seven is a number that represents spiritual completion or perfection. The “perfect” example is Shabbat, the completion and perfection of creation.
It is obvious that we are all always imperfect. We are all always working on ourselves, learning, and growing. Yet, some matters are closed and concluded. Each of us has overcome certain sins; we can each name past temptations that simply no longer tempt us. Each of us has grown and improved in some lasting ways.
Day seven represents the completion, the perfection of a miracle.
Are there miracles that have been completed in your life, miracles you now trust and rely upon? For example, perhaps you had a falling out with a family member and now your relationship is healed. You don’t take that miracle for granted, but you do feel secure in it. It won’t disappear tomorrow. The relationship is solid, and the miracle of the healing is firmly in place.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the seventh candle or during the seventh day of Hanukah and consider:
Are there miracles you are still working toward or trying to manifest in your life, which are actually complete?
What can you do to give thanks for, and rest in the assurance of, the completed, perfected miracles in your life?
Day 8 – Miracle Meditation for the Eighth Candle and the Eighth Day of Hanukah
The eighth day represents moving from spiritual intention to physical enactment. The ultimate example of this is brit milah. On the eighth day, we bring a child into the covenant with a ritual that marks Jewish identity on his body. Another great biblical example of “eighth day energy” is the Tabernacle. Spiritual preparation lasts one week; on the eighth day, the first sacrifice is brought. Potential is realized through action.
This last sentence is telling, because it is a valid summary of the message of Hanukah. “Potential is realized through action.” If you don’t fight the battle, if you don’t light the flame, you will never know what miracles might have resulted. The Maccabees didn’t wait for a specific Divine directive. They were activists, and that is part of what we celebrate this holiday.
Take a few quiet moments in front of the eighth candle or during the eighth day of Hanukah and consider:
What actions can you take to help bring about miracles in your own life?
What actions can you take to help bring about miracles for the Jewish people?
What actions can you take to help bring about miracles for your loved ones?
What actions can you take to help bring about miracles for strangers?
Now, in the spirit of the holiday, take action! Even if it’s just one small step, move forward. Gather momentum, and set the miracle in motion.
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