This is one of those years when G-d played a cruel trick on us. Chanukah was over before Christmas arrives. For us as Jews, things just seem to be easier and work out better when these two holidays come out at the same time.
Children in our religious school can be told they have no classes during the last week of December because it's Chanukah. We are singing when the rest of America is singing. We are giving gifts when everybody else is giving gifts. We can celebrate when society at large is celebrating. We don't have to confront what is referred to as the "December dilemma," feeling left out from the dominant culture of the majority.
The truth of the matter is, that while Chanukah and Christmas are two very different holidays, this year they both had something in common. Some people tried to take them away from us!
This attempt was made manifest in different ways; Federated department stores owners of Macy's told their managers to avoid displaying "Merry Christmas" banners, only "Seasons Greetings" was deemed appropriate. New York City's Mayor Bloomberg said that the tree he lit outside of City Hall was not a Christmas tree but a "holiday tree." And the founder of the company producing "Chrismukkah" cards (for Interfaith couples or those wishing to send greetings for both holidays) said, "Our intention wasn't to merge the religious aspects but rather the secular aspects of the holidays." But that's the whole problem! Chanukah is not a secular holiday … and neither is Christmas!
Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates a victory for religious liberty and freedom. Had the Maccabees lost the battle there would be no Judaism today. Indeed, there would be no Christianity. In fact, until the 5th Century there was a day in the Church calendar commemorating the Maccabees! Even more, it's very possible that Christians were more familiar with the story of the Maccabees than Jews were. The Book of the Maccabees was included in the Christian Bible, not the Jewish one. The events and personalities of the Chanukah story were used by Christians as archetypes for Christian ideals. Jewish martyrs, ready to give their lives for their faith, served as an inspiration for Christians facing persecution at the hands of the Romans. Everyone understood there was nothing "secular" about the Maccabees' victory and it certainly should not be celebrated in a secular way. If it is, its whole message is lost!
Similarly, Christmas deserves to be celebrated by Christians for what it is: A religious holiday, not a secular one. And it deserves to be observed as a religious holiday, not a secular one. I know many Jews psychologically bar their doors when someone goes on TV and says this is a Christian country. A statement like that bothers me as well. But sometimes we go overboard.
As someone recently pointed out that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg oftentimes speaks about "the Jewish roots of her legal philosophy," statements like that make us, as Jews, feel good. But what if Justice Anthony Scalia said that his view of the law is based on "the Christian roots of his legal philosophy?" The Jewish community would be in an uproar.
The fact of the matter is, America is not a Christian country, but an overwhelming majority of Americans are Christian! Why shouldn't Christmas be celebrated across our country? But I say it shouldn't be celebrated because it's a secular holiday. To me, that robs Christians of one of their most sacred days. It should be celebrated in America because 75% of Americans are Christians. And the other 25% aren't being forced to observe it. You want to get up early on Dec. 25th and go to work? Nobody's stopping you! But at the same time, nobody is forcing you to bring a Christmas tree into your home!
To me, the public celebrations of Christmas and Chanukah represent American diversity at its best. Far better that, than the banning of religious symbols as being practiced by the French. Why should children be taught to hide their religious identity rather than take pride in it?
Dealing with issues of church and state is a central issue of our time. Most every country is now confronting it. But whereas in Islamic countries the effort from the very beginning was to impose religion and whereas in European countries, since the French Revolution, the effort was made to free people from religion … America was created to free people to practice their religion. And the freedom to practice requires not secularizing our religions, and not blurring the differences between religions, but learning to respect each other's religious beliefs.
You know, in our East European days, the arrival of Christmas sometimes led to pogroms against the Jews. That's the way it used to be. But that's not the way it is now!
Next month, I will be traveling to Rome as part of a Jewish delegation that is participating in an audience with the Pope. Why are we going? We are going to say "thank you" on behalf of the Jewish people. Sure, we still have our differences. But overall, with the Pope's recognition of the state of Israel, his visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and his on-going outright condemnation of anti-Semitism, this man has changed the course of history for the Jews. He's getting older, and we wanted to let him know how much he has meant to our people.
In one generation we have gone from fears of pogroms emanating from the Church to a pilgrimage of thanksgiving to the prince of the Church. The enemies of Judaism and Christianity are no longer each other. We both share common enemies atheism, materialism, warfare, poverty, bigotry and ignorance, and tragically, to some degree, Islam. And the goals and messianic dreams of Judaism and Christianity are shared in common as well justice, brotherhood, love and peace.
So let's put the "Ch" back into Chanukah! And, yes, let Christians put Christ back into Christmas. Let us not attempt to secularize our religions, or to blur our religious differences. Let us learn to respect each other's religion. Then there will truly be "peace on earth and goodwill toward all men" … and women as well!
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Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg is Senior Rabbi of Baltimore's Beth Tfiloh Congregation. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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Thanksgiving: Let us not be warped in our perspective
© 2004, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg