Being a Jew in Christian places has been the Jewish experience throughout most of history. It is an adventure, and in some ways the adventure is most fascinating during Christmas season.
Because of historical or theological reasons, Jewish and Christian holidays sometimes coincide on the calendar.
Easter falls in the range of Passover, partly because both are dated by the lunar calendar, but also because the underlying events bear some relation to each other.
On the other hand, sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, an event celebrated by Christians as the most significant birth in history. Hanukkah, which starts today, celebrates the defeat of the occupying Syrians by the army of the Maccabees in 164 BCE, and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the lighting of the sacred oil lamp.
This is an important event in Jewish history, but the holiday is generally considered a minor one. It just happens that the 25th day of December on the Gregorian calendar falls close to the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar. No more, no less.
There is, of course, more.
As Christmas moved from the religious sphere to the social and cultural sphere, the coincidence became comparison. Christmas is one of the world’s biggest and most sacred celebrations. Along with the religious practices there are music, lights, decorations, and gifts – the best gifts of the year.
On the Hanukkah side of the street, things are more modest, reflecting a less important holiday. There is music, though none that reaches the heights of Christmas or of the Jewish High Holy days. There are lights to recall the lamp in the Temple – but just one candle added for each of the eight nights.
Gifts? If you are going to give gifts on each of eight nights, just how big can those gifts be? There is lots of fun. There is lots of dreidel spinning – a top the letters of which represent the words “A great miracle happened there.” There is lots of good food, especially fried potato latkes, with the oil in which they’re fried representing the Temple lamp.
In any case, Hanukkah is not, and isn’t meant to be, Christmas.
Because the holidays come so close together, questions and dilemmas naturally arose. Should Jews have Christmas trees? Some do, though often in the face of criticism.
Should Hanukkah gift giving look like Christmas? In some households, the solution is to give one big gift along with eight little ones.
Should Jews send Hanukkah cards? The Post Office and Hallmark certainly hope so.
Above all is this question: In the face of pure coincidence, should we even try to find common ground between Hanukkah and Christmas? Reconciling the irreconcilable can be a silly, misleading or even dangerous exercise. But since this is an adventure, here is an attempt.
The story of Hanukkah is found in the Bible in First and Second Maccabees. Due to the different ways biblical canons have been established, these books are surprisingly not included in the Jewish canon, but they are included in the Catholic and Orthodox canon, and they’re considered apocryphal by the Protestant churches. The story can be read at 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 and at 2 Maccabees 10:1-9.
Noted Boston College scholar Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., has this to say about the story in I Maccabees: “It presents the Maccabees as exemplars of worldly activism and champions of Jewish religious freedom and national independence. It allows readers to follow the course of a Jewish revolutionary movement over the period of more than thirty years.”
The events of Hanukkah occurred almost two centuries before the birth of Jesus and before he visited the Temple in Jerusalem. But surely the spirit of those events, as described by Fr. Harrington, resonated loudly at the time Jesus was born.
Once again, the Jews were a subject people, this time under the Romans instead of the Syrians. Once again, a revolutionary spirit was in the air. Once again, there was hope for a new possibility and for deliverance.
Jews and Christians differ radically on the history of that deliverance. But we can all agree on the significance of worldly activism in the face of oppression, of championing religious freedom, and of new possibilities.
In these days of Hanukkah and Christmas, as we all strive to remember the reasons for the seasons, that is something we can all believe in.
Bob Schwartz is a Board member of Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo. Hanukkah begins this year with the lighting of the first candle on Friday evening, Dec. 11. Temple B’nai Israel holds its annual Hanukkah celebration on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 5 p.m., including a pot luck dinner. For more information about Temple B’nai Israel visit www.shalomtupelo.com
Bob Schwartz/Special to the NEMS Daily Journal