Hanukkah and Christmas: Light Within Darkness
Hanukkah and Christmas are two wondrous winter holidays that celebrate the light of God. The spiritual power of these festivals comes from the fact that they celebrate light at the darkest time of the year. For Jews the candles on the menorah represent freedom. After all, the success of the Maccabees in the 2nd century B.C.E., celebrated as Hanukkah, represented one of the first successful recorded struggles for religious freedom. Today our menorahs are lit as a symbol for all people who struggle to overcome prejudice. Parallel to Hanukkah, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus as representing the birth of a new light that came into the world. Christianity and Judaism represent two paths celebrating the same light through two uniquely different stories.
The time has arrived when Christians and Jews are beginning to have a new understanding of each other—the darkness of old prejudices is rapidly making way for the light of truth. Do we need to criticize each other's faith in order to explain our own faith? I hope not. Do we need to "spin" descriptions of our own beliefs when comparing them to each other's beliefs? I hope not. The word of God in each of our great religions needs no interpretative spin. What we need are more passionate, joy-filled discussions and dialogues with an underlying celebration of what we have in common.
To a Jew, Jesus can at most be a brother; a fellow Jew at the highest spiritual level who was martyred like millions of other Jews; a teacher of a group of devotees who wanted to see the prophetic dream of peace and justice fulfilled in this world. He was a healer in the lineage of Elijah and Elisha before him; a mystic like the Baal Shem Tov after him; an incredible storyteller in the tradition of the Pharisees. He was a good son, a good Jew, and what in Judaism we call a mensch, someone who lived up to his potential.
Yet to a Christian this can never, and should never be enough. To a follower of Jesus he is much more. He is one with his Father. He is the anointed one, the messiah who was spoken of in the Jewish prophetic writings, and he is the incarnation of the God—both Savior and Comforter. Without him salvation had not been accessible to the Greek and Roman gentiles. With him comes a covenant with the Living God. Through him there is hope for the coming of the Kingdom of God both in this world and in the world to come.
Herein lies the mystery: one Jesus, two understandings. The Jesus believed in and worshipped by the Church is the province of the Church. To a Christian he is seen as both messiah and Savior. To a Jew the messiah is an anointed person and God is the Savior. On these points we will probably always differ. But the historical Jesus, Jesus the man, the Jewish man, the rabbi—he belongs to both of us. Once free of missionary pressure the Jew may learn to see historical Jesus as he was—a Torah-observant Jew and a martyr who died because of his fidelity to God and Judaism. But the Christian's relationship is not based on the historical Jesus. It is primarily with the theological Jesus—the Christ who is mysteriously one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. How can these two positions be reconciled?
Do they even need to be reconciled? I do not think they can be, nor do I think they should be. The contemporary mindset does not hold onto contradictions very well. We don't have much room in our minds for mystery and paradox as we once did. We want answers. We pose our questions in black and white, either/or. A pastor once said to me, "Either Jesus is the Savior or he is a fraud." I asked, "Why? Where did you come up with such a clear either/or choice? Maybe he is Savior to you and ancestor to me, and we're both right."
I don't propose to minimize Jewish and Christian differences. On the contrary, I think it's time to celebrate our differences. A healthy ecosystem is one where there is eco-diversity. Many of us sense that the same principle holds true between our faiths as well. In a most profound and mysterious way, we need each other. Certainly our theologies differ when it comes to describing Jesus. But this holiday season in particular, the light that seems to be entering the hearts of the faithful is one and the same—the light of tolerance, respect, and celebration of each other's paths.
Jews and Christians celebrate the same moral light as well. We have a passion for justice and equality based on the prophets that is identical. We have parallel problems and challenges that face us both. We love and serve the same God. As the prophet Isaiah called out to us, come let us reason together! Though our sins be as scarlet the Holy One of Israel will make them white as snow! May our menorahs and the lights upon our trees shine forth in two directions—into the world to be a model for others, and into each of ourselves as well.
Visit the Patheos Book Club beginning December 1, 2013 for more on Rabbi David Zaslow's new book, Jesus: First-Century Rabbi.
Rabbi David Zaslow, M.S., is the spiritual leader of Havurah Shir Hadash, a synagogue in Ashland, Oregon. He is the author of the new book Jesus: First Century Rabbi, and editor of the bestselling Hebrew/English prayer book for spiritual renewal, Ivdu et Hashem B'simcha—Serve the Holy One With Joy. He travels the country leading workshops with churches and synagogues on the Jewish roots of Christianity.