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Hanukkah Guilt... A Personal Confession

Hanukkah Guilt... A Personal Confession
by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

My son wanted to sit on Santa's lap. ..You can't, I replied. ..Why not? he persisted. ..How can you? I thought to myself... your mother is a rabbi, your father is a would it look? And so began our explanation: ..It isn't our holiday. Christmas and Hanukkah are different. Yes, they both happen at the same time. Yes, they both have lights and presents. But they are different. And Christmas with Santa and the lights on the house and the lovely tree, even "It's a Wonderful Life" just isn't ours. So go pet the reindeer and let's go home, OK? ..OK, he agreed. Good kid.

But in my mind, I know the case isn't so clear.

After all our efforts to separate Hanukkah and Christmas, pushing back against the tide of assimilation...after our staunch denials and disavowals, our constant declarations that these are completely difference, unrelated, and distinct holidays despite their chronological proximity...I confess a secret:

Any student of world religion knows that it's no accident that both holidays are celebrated at this time of year. It's no mere coincidence that both are associated with the lighting of lights...stringing lights on trees, around homes, or placing lights in windows. Because, in fact, Christmas and Hanukkah are related through a common ancestor deep in our past.

Before there was a Christmas, before there was Hanukkah, there was another festival at this time of year. At the time of the winter solstice, when the days reach their shortest duration and the nights, their longest, our prehistoric ancestors celebrated a festival. Fearful that the day would continue to dissolve into night, they exercised rites of sympathetic magic to bring the day back...they lit bonfires. Lights on earth offered up in hopes of rekindling the lights of the sky. Fearful of the night demons that would revel on the longest night of the year, they huddled around blazing hearths. In the long and fearsome darkness of the solstice, they sought the protection of communal lights. And they celebrated the victory of the little light against the massive darkness: The return of day was brought on by the lighting of lights.

It was an attractive symbol for our Maccabean and Rabbinic ancestors. No longer afraid of physical darkness, they perceived in the solstice darkness a symbol of a spiritual darkness: all the forces of the world aligned to extinguish the light of Torah.

Antiochus's Hellenism was all-encompassing...everyone was turning to Greek culture...except a small band of country priests led by Mattathias and his sons. The story of the small cruse of oil that burned eight days is not a fairy tale, nor a distraction from the Macabees' accomplishments: it is a parable -- a symbol. It was a miracle that a small bit of light dispelled a great deal of darkness. With only one family in all the world committed to the light of Torah, all the darkness of Hellenism was repelled and the nation redeemed. So we seized the symbols of the ancient pagan festival, but changed their meanings: The lights in our windows this Hanukkah are meant not to chase away solstice darkness, but to reaffirm our commitment to the light of Torah in a world of spiritual darkness.

Ironically, the same thought struck our Christian cousins. For them, it was the darkness of sin that encompassed the world...the human inability to act with pure conscience and selflessness. And only God's true grace, through the coming of the Christ, could save humankind. Christ entered the world and the darkness of sin was dispelled by his light. Our Christian cousins also seized upon the solstice festival as a symbol. They celebrated the joyful coming of light into a darkened world, the coming of hope into a world of despair, the promise of day in a world of night...the miraculous birth of the Christ-child. And they used the same ancient pagan symbols...lights in their windows, lights in their hearths.

The lights of Hanukkah symbolize the constant rebirth of Torah, even amidst our most pressing darkness. The lights of Christmas symbolize the redeeming arrival of Christ into a world blinded by the oppressive darkness of sin. Each represents God's great act of love...what Jews call "rahamim" and Christians call "grace". But they are different kinds of lights, and different kinds of love. An entire world of thinking separates them.

How does the miracle of Hanukkah begin? Any Sunday school child know this -- when Mattathias takes the sword to the altar of Zeus (and to the Jew worshipping there), rallies an army of Judean farmers and peasants, and sets off to liberate the defiled Temple of Jerusalem. Only then does the miracle take place -- the victory over the Greek Syrians, the rededication of the Temple, and finally the miraculous cruse of oil. Only after human beings have acted, placed their lives on the line, entered the fray of history and its ambivalence...only then, does God's miracle occur. The lesson is clear -- don't wait for redemption! This is a bit of classic Jewish activism: God's grace, His "rahamim" is available only to those prepared to act; to act despite our own impurities, our own ambivalence, and all the ambiguities of the world of action. Act! and God will respond. The light of Hanukah indeed represents God's presence in the world, but it is a light kindled and protected by human action.

And the light of Christmas? It too represents God's loving presence. But a presence human beings have no part in calling up.

On the contrary, according to the Christmas story, the light of Christ enters the world precisely because human beings have lost all their capacity to move toward redemption. So thoroughly blinded by sin, only God can help humanity. The light of Christmas is the symbol of God's grace but also the symbol of the ultimate failure of all human action.

We must choose which lights to light this holiday. This is not a choice among factual accounts of the world. Even those of us totally committed to Judaism and to Jewish activism must admit that a peek at almost any morning newspaper might sway us to the Christian assertion that humanity is mired in sin, and unable to redeem itself. Neither conception is empirically true or false. Each reflects an orientation -- an approach to the world and our role in it, a choice among core values.

We choose which lights to kindle. It's more than keeping my kid off Santa's knee. At stake is our commitment to redemption and how it might happen. At stake is what we are meant to do for its sake. At stake is our fundamental perception of the human ability to perfect the world into God's kingdom. At stake is our conception of our world, and our role in its perfection. The question: Which lights to kindle? really asks us: Which world do choose to live in? Which role in that world do you embrace?

Or maybe my mom had it right all along. We came to her, as kids, and demanded a tree, just like all the other kids in the neighborhood. She agreed. ..Okay, you can have your tree. We were shocked. ..With all the trimmings? Yup, she replied, with all the trimmings, tinsel, lights, stars, ornaments, angels, July.

Happy Hanukkah.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Sat, November 27 2021 23 Kislev 5782