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Santa-Claustrophobia and Hanukkah

There is a folk saying that holidays have to have "mazel.” For example, one of the biblical holidays is Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new moon. Rosh Chodesh is the first day of the Hebrew month, but you don't hear much about Rosh Chodesh. If you walked on Ventura, and asked somebody at random whether today was Rosh Chodesh, you would likely get a very interesting response.

Hanukkah has no book in the Bible named after it. On Purim, we have Megillah Esther; you have the Song of Songs on Passover; on Shavuoth, the Book of Ruth; on Tisha B'av you have the Book of Lamentations, but for Hanukkah you have absolutely no book. It's in the Apocrypha, the non-canonized part of the Bible. If you look in the Talmud, one of the questions asked is Mai Chanukah, which means "What is Hanukkah?” Rabbis didn't seem to know what Hanukkah was. The holiday must have fallen into disuse.

Judah Maccabee is not mentioned in the Talmud. But history has its own cunning, and Hanukkah has become the most well-known and celebrated of all the festivals. And that may have to do with its juxtaposition, calendrically speaking, with Christmas itself.

Thanksgiving is a festival that is very easy for Jews to celebrate. First of all, because the preferred entree, turkey, is a kosher animal. Cranberry sauce is okay for kashruth.

And there is nothing problematic about wearing a pilgrim's hat, which is a fairly unusual, kind of yarmulke. Thanksgiving falls on Thursday with deliberacy. It doesn't fall on Friday because that is the holiday for the Muslims; or on Shabbat because that is the holiday for the Jews; or on Sunday because that is the Christian holiday. Thursday is the neutral day, and Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday on which we read at services from the sancta of American literature: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Washington's farewell address, et cetera.

Thanksgiving is a religiously neutral, secular holiday.

The dream of emancipation occurred some two hundred years ago, right after the French revolution. Many sought a denominationally neutral society, neither Christian, Muslim or Jewish. The American dollar bill has the words "novus ordo seclorum,” the new secular order. The Constitution of the United States makes no reference to God. Article Six of the Constitution specifies that there shall be no religious test for holding national public office. In the First Amendment, Congress is barred from establishing a religion or prohibiting the exercise thereof.

That's Thanksgiving, and that's November. But it's a long time from November to December. December is the season to be wary. I remember the December seasons well, from my earliest youth when I attended public school – PS 89 – in the Bronx. It was a nervous time and all the Jewish kids, who were not in the majority, invented a special kind of humming. Whenever Miss Froilich, our music teacher would urge us to sing, "Oh little town of Bethlehem" my Jewish compatriots suddenly turned to "hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm," fumphing. So it was with "Oh come all ye faithful,” "hmmm hmmm." From this the word "fumphing" is derived. Fumphing is a passive kind of deliberate mumbling of the words. For the Jewish cohorts, there would be something treasonable if one were to sing out loud, "Oh Christ the Lord.” Intuitively, such a declaration would be a betrayal of Judaism.

Miss Froilich, a lovely woman, would tell the class, "Those who don't want to participate may be excused." But the Jewish kids did not want to be excused. Jewish kids wanted to participate. This was the public school, this was America. So we didn't excuse ourselves, but we used all kinds of evasion to get out of vocally endorsing Christology.

Christmas, unlike Thanksgiving, was the season of Claustrophobia – Santa Claustrophobia. The attitude toward Santa Claus was symptomatic of Jewish ambivalence. Who is this Santa Claus? Yes, he wears a beard and hat, but I was never comfortable with Santa Claus' beard. It wasn't like zayde's beard. Something was different. And because I was a chubbier kid than most, I was invariably selected by Miss Froylich to be a Santa Claus, and without any cushions or pillows whatsoever.

Who was Santa Claus? Was he a saint? Should I therefore be afraid of him because he was a Christian saint and not a Jewish tzadik? Or should I regard him as a secular reindeer driver? Santa represented something that began to slide down the chimney of secular neutrality. Remember the story of the Jewish mama who takes her child on Christmas to Macy's to experience the joy of Americana? All the kids line up and sit on the knee of Santa Claus and ask their favors. The Jewish child also sits on his knee. Santa says: "And what, young man, would you like to have for Christmas?" The child says, "We don't celebrate Christmas. We're Jewish." Santa Claus responds in Yiddish, "A lang leben oif dein kapeleh."

The anecdote comes as a relief and revelation. Behind the strange beard was, lo and behold, my zayde. What a surprise, Santa Claus speaks "mameh loshen Yiddish.” You're not alone, you're not a stranger, you're not a minority.

For two centuries, the Jewish dream was to live in a neutral society. In 1806, Napoleon convened a Sanhedrin of 120 Jewish lay and rabbinic notables, and he asked them to respond to twelve questions, among which was, "Are you Jews, who are willing to be part of France, willing to go to war against Jews who come from a different country? Are French Jews going to fight German Jews?" He asked, "Would you dissolve the rabbinic authority?" In short, he was telling the dreamers of emancipation, "If you want to join the French nation and if you want to have equal rights, liberty, fraternity and equality, the right to vote and bear arms, you must surrender your being to a separate nationality.”

And that was the way the friends of the Jewish people argued for the emancipation of the Jews. This was expressed by to Count Clairmont de Tonnere: "To the Jew as an individual, we will grant everything. To the Jew as a group, we will grant nothing."

So the Jews understood that there was a silent contract, a kind of tradeoff for the privilege of entering a neutral society. The public square is neutral. The school is to be neutral, the state is to be neutral. And this neutrality calls for a separation between my identity as a Jew and the public universe in which I live. How will I know that I am Jewish? Well, you will know that you are Jewish because in the private domain of your home, you will be able to express your unique religiosity. Y.L. Gordon advocated the split: "Be a Jew at home and a human being in the street."

People think of us as an old people, 3,000 years old. But in terms of the new infrastructure, in terms of the political and cultural life, we Jews are only 200 years old. We are an old-new people who have lived in a society that has become a secular Gentile society. A revealing anecdote is told about three people: the Marquis d'Argins, the Catholic, the Protestant King Frederic the Great, and the Jew, Moses Mendelson. In the eighteenth century, Jews were not allowed to live in certain areas of the country. Jews couldn't live, for example, in Berlin. But the Marquis appealed to King Frederic to issue a ruling that would allow Moses Mendelson to live in Berlin. He wrote a letter declaring: "An intellectual who is a bad Catholic, appeals to an intellectual who is a bad Protestant, to allow an intellectual who is a bad Jew to live in Berlin."

The idea was that the commonality among Protestants, Catholics and Jews is something universal, namely reason. We are all intellectual, we all can use our minds, and that we are all of us bad Catholics, bad Jews, and bad Protestants. The public square has been secularized, kept separate from religious divisiveness.

When Christmas arrives, we begin to feel that the putative neutral society is not so neutral. We discover a crèche in the public domain, a cross before City Hall. The public square is not so neutral. And even in our own homes, we begin to hear the voices of children saying, "Why can't I have a Christmas tree?" That's a very shocking thing.

There are some Jews who are turning their homes into a neutral arena. Not Jewish, not Christian, but secular. Some have Christmas trees and offer as justification an aesthetic response, "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree." It's only a tree, and it's an aesthetic thing. And I say to them, "Okay, put it up on Sukkot." Another response is, "Look, the tree is not a Christian symbol. It is a pagan symbol and it marks the beginning of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year." And I say, "If it's a pagan symbol, what is the significance of having a pagan symbol in your home?"

In truth, like much of the public square, the Christmas tree is not so neutral as they would make out. My Christian colleagues who talk to their congregations around this time of year say, "We have got to put Christ back into Christmas." They understand the seriousness of symbols. Is a latke a religious symbol? Is singing, "I Am A Latke" a religious hymn? Is a dreidel a religious symbol? But those folk songs and rituals are Jewish because they make children happy, and when you associate the happiness of the child with Judaism it strengthens Jewish identity. My Christian clergymen explain the evergreen as a symbol of the eternity of Jesus as Christ. You hang a wreath on the door of your home not because it's pretty, but because it represents the crown of thorns placed upon Jesus' head in the crucifixion. The red berries represent to serious Christians the blood of Jesus as he was crucified. Hot cross buns on Easter are different from latkes on Chanukah, the crèche and the menorah are equally different.

But the child's question, "Why can't I have a Christmas tree?" is more significant. The child may be saying, "Why can't I be Christian? Why can't I be like everybody else? Why do I have to sing phumph hmmm hmmm hmmm? Why can't I be part of the majority?" Parents are taken aback. What parent wants to be the "Scrooge" who denies the kid? Some parents don't offer answers. They offer bribes. Pedagogic bribery argues that since Christmas is only one day and Hanukkah is eight days, we have eight to one odds in our favor.

But it doesn't work. Remember when you lost a penny and your father said, "Don't cry. I'll give you another penny." The kid keeps on crying. And Papa says "Why are you crying?" The kid responds, "Because if I hadn't lost the penny, I would have had two pennies." So it is with those who want to have Hanukkah and also want to have Christmas. Let's have the best of both worlds. Let's have Hanukkah and let's have Christmas:  a tree with a Star of David, and a Santa Claus we name Uncle Judah. The Jewish home has lost its distinctivness.

There is a great deal that Christianity and Judaism have in common, and for that matter all monotheistic faiths, including Islam. Still, Christianity is not Islam, nor is Christianity Judaism.

One of the things that is absolutely indispensable for the integrity of Jews is that they understand in what sense Judaism differs. Not different because Jews have been victims, or because they are persecuted, but because serious Jews are ideologically and theologically different from Christians who are serious about their Christianity. Now I can only talk to you about serious Christianity and serious Judaism.

What are the differences? If you are a Christian, you believe in inherited sin, what is called "original sin.” Original sin is essential for Christian belief. The entire story of Jesus, the crucifixion, the resurrection doesn't make any sense without belief in original sin. To a Christian, after the fall of Adam, the mirror, the image of God in every human being has been smashed to smithereens. Humankind is left in total depravity. No one is born innocent of original sin. A baby is born with the stigma of sin, and that is in fact how the Catholic church came about to introduce to Catholic thinking the idea of the doctrine of the immaculate conception.

Immaculate conception means that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was born without original sin. Were she born in original sin, Jesus would be housed in a womb, in a body, that was already tainted and stigmatized. Therefore the dogma of immaculate conception exempts Mary.

Sin in Christianity is not something that you do. It is something that happens to you from the outside. The book of Romans (6:19) states: "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." It is Adam's disobedience that contaminates his human progeny. Everybody is sinful, everybody inherits Adam's sin. You can do nothing about inheritance. It is something you get with human genes and chromosomes. There must be a second Adam and that second Adam is like a metaphysical power, a supernatural agent who alone can expiate from that original sin. You yourself can do nothing on your own to expiate for your sin, you yourself cannot use your reason; you yourself cannot repair that original sin. because it is something that requires a supernatural redemption from a supernatural sin.

This dogma stands radically opposed in Judaism. In Judaism there is no such notion as original sin. On the contrary, in Judaism, from the beginning in the Jewish Bible, we speak about the creation of goodness, everything created is good, and that is the point of Genesis 1: "And God saw that it was good.” 

This does not deny that evil is real and that people sin. But importantly, you can do something about it. In fact, it is only you who sin who can do something about it. There is no notion in Judaism of vicarious atonement. Nobody can cry for me, nobody can die for me, nobody can give me absolution and nobody can forgive me –  no priest, no prophet, no king, no rabbi. On Yom Kippur, the rabbis make it explicit that in the relationship between me and somebody else, "The day of atonement does not expiate until I make repair." If I did you injury, I have to repair it. If I stole from you, I can't go to God and say "God forgive me." God has nothing to do with it. It is in my hands to repair the injury.

The sins that concern us are not inherited. They are our sins, the sins of fallible human beings who can repent, who can do tshuvah, who can mend the fabric they have torn.

Now, related to this is the Jewish doctrine of human fallibility. To understand this notion you must understand in what sense Judaism is different. In Judaism, nobody is infallible. Find me a righteous person in this world who has done good and has not sinned. So, if you want to compare Christmas and Easter with Hanukkah and Passover, one of the terms in which they are differentiated is that in the Christian Christmas and Easter motifs are based on the deification of an individual.

Hanukkah, for all of its minor and unimportant significance, is in one sense very Jewish. Because the story of Hanukkah is the refusal of the Jews to make out of Antiochus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes, the manifestation of God. Jews do not deify anyone who walks the face of the earth. Remember the drama of Hannah and her seven sons. The point of the story is that the sons did not bow down to Antiochus.   

Similarly, Pesach is a contest between God and Pharaoh, who in his mind is God. On Purim, the whole point revolves around the refusal of Mordecai to bow down to Haman.

And all of this has a great deal to do with Jewish character. Again, I am talking about serious Jews. Don't talk to me about Jews who have never heard about anything. I'm talking about serious-minded Jews who understand that all of this human fallibility means not only that Jews don't bow down to an authority, but it means that you have the obligation to criticize power. If you go through the prophets, a unique and distinctive contribution of Judaism to world civilization, what does the prophet do? The prophet Nathan says to King David "Look, David, you are an adulterer and you are a murderer." Nathan ends the conversation with two stunning Hebrew words, "ata haesh,” "Thou art the man." And with that, David crumbles because he has heard the word of conscience. And he knows his own fallibility. It's going to be put in the Bible and studied because that is the point. The same thing happens with Elijah the Prophet, who learns that King Ahab has expropriated some poor guy's land in order to steal it for himself. Then Ahab kills the poor man.  Elijah says in nice, simple Hebrew, "Have you murdered and will you also inherit?"

I mention these examples because it is especially important for Jews and children to understand. Now, I'm not saying that you can sit down and give them this talk. I do not know. Let me take it back. Why not? You are parents and grandparents. You do have conversations with your children. There is a table. Why shouldn't these notions be pointed out? Jewish kids should not grow up in a cultural and theological vacuum. So that when you deal with the question, "Why can't we have a Christmas tree?" the answer is not because, I don't know, “aesthetics.” You answer, "We don't do it because we don't do it," or "Look, as long as you live in my house, you are going to do what I do." Tell your children why not. It is important to know why they are not Christians.

Because you have to understand that this is not a negation of Christianity. This is an affirmation of Judaism. I am not saying that we oppose, as Jews, the divinity of Jesus. That's not my point. I am saying we oppose the divinity of anybody. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Solomon, you mention a person, and we oppose it because of very basic principles. Need I tell you that there are literally hundreds and hundreds of basic differentia, basic difference?  And I didn't mention this, but let's take the question of salvation.

Christians believe in salvation. St. Cyprian put it very clearly in that famous phrase, "extra ecclesium nula salus,” – "outside of the church nobody can be saved." Now I know there are refinements and there are some literal interpretations of Christianity, but I speak to enough people who are Christians and I see the influence of the Church. If you read Mark 16:16 it says, "He that believeth and who is baptized shall be saved, and he that does not believe and is not baptized will be damned."

Now, it's okay for them to believe that. It happens to bother me a great deal. I mean I do feel a little bit hurt to feel that they regard me as being damned, to crawl on the coals in hell and perdition. But I have to understand that Judaism repudiates that kind of thinking. And you've got to know that to tell it to your kids. Also, you must know it to tell yourselves that in Judaism you have the notion of the seven mitzvoth, the seven precepts of Noah, which means that any individual, Jew, or non-Jew, who observes these seven mitzvoth –  not to shed blood, to have a court of justice, basic ethical, moral kinds of aspects –  has a share in the world to come. Kol Yisrael -"Every Jew has a share in the world to come together with every single member of the righteous peoples of the world."

Is this important? It is terribly important because when I discuss the difficult situations that arise when raising a Jewish child whose mother may not be Jewish, and who therefore has two sets of grandparents -- one Jewish and one Christian -- it must be understood that these children will be with both sets of grandparents. It is vital that you yourself understand what your uniqueness is as a Jew, and what differences there are between Judaism and Christianity.

Differences do not mean disrespect. On the contrary, I am convinced that I am able to deal with my Christian counterpart better than an ignorant and an unserious Jew, because I know what my Judaism is and I know in what sense it differs from Christianity. I say, in passing, that the Talmud says "Gehd shenus gayere dome linolad.” If a person converts to Judaism, he or she is considered as a baby, newly born, having no father and no mother. That's for lawyers. But I will say that when the law was written, there were fewer mixed marriages and intermarriages and inter-faith marriages than we see today. It is absolutely ridiculous to speak about your Christian son-in-law or your Christian daughter-in-law as if they have no parents. They have parents. And those parents must be respected. The relationship between that Christian person who is now Jewish and who has Christian parents has to be respected.

I will say that before you enter into any relationship with another human being, you better make sure that you know who in the world you are and what sets you apart. The reasons for this are not vulgar reasons. There are philosophical, theological and moral reasons. They are important. Speak to your children, and have a happy Hanukkah.

In your Siddur you will find something that differentiates us from Christian thinking. This is wine. Wine in Judaism has not sacramental power. Every Jew has to understand that. It is not the case for either a Protestant or a Catholic. Catholics believe that there are seven sacraments which are indispensable for salvation. Some Protestants only believe in two –  namely baptism and the Eucharist. But the fact that you can recite the Kiddush, and then drink it and spill it out, says a great deal about the Jewish attitude toward the sacred and toward power.


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Mon, September 26 2022 1 Tishrei 5783