Joseph Edelheit, is a Reform Rabbi—retired from Temple Israel, Minneapolis in 2001—and now Director and Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies at St Cloud State University. His D Min is in Christian Theology from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He is a founding Director of Living India an NGO doing HIV/AIDS work in rural India. He has been called, Solomon Porch’s Rabbi where he teaches and does dialogue sermons with Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones.
This semester in my seminar on Jewish-Christian relations a student introduced himself as taking the course so he could better understand the culture of “his” savior. He struggled all semester with the burden of differentiating the living reality of Jews and Judaism from his fantasy of how the Judean from the Galilee, Jesus, lived his life. When I introduce the Hebrew Bible to students who think they are taking a course in the Old Testament, I write four words on the board: Hebrews, Israelites, Jews and Israelis. I explain that these are not the same people and I will expect them to understand the when and why of each term.
This is the period of the year many Jews experience the “December Dilemma”! Depending on the actual community in which they (the Jews) live, they might be such a minority that they are literally overwhelmed by Christmas, and their observance of Hannukah is actually hidden. It is tough being a small voice trying to be heard as distinct with all of the white noise of Christmas music filling every single possible sound wave.
My youngest child likes going to Target and personally counting how many Hannukah cards are being sold! The numbers don’t anger her, simply remind her how insignificant her festival of lights is in this ever so White Christian world!.
So given the opportunity to write my first EV Blog, I thought it would be important to wonder out loud and in public, is it time for Christians to be who they claim and leave Judaism to Jews? Hence, my title linking the Last Supper to Pesach/Passover with Christmas and Hannukah, should Christians reclaim the miracle of Hannukah and give up the Nativity?
A quick review of history: between 168-165 BCE a group of Judeans fought a small war against the Assyrian Greeks who attempted to force syncretism into Israelite religious practice. One group of particularly famous, brave and dare I suggest, legendary, warriors were the Maccabees or Hasmoneans. After ending the armed conflict, the Maccabees went to re-dedicate the Temple—the word Hannukah in Hebrew means to dedicate—the legend has it that there was only a small cruse of oil enough for only one night, yet miracle of miracles the oil lasted eight nights! Hence, on Tuesday December 20 Jews all over the world we light the first of 8 nights of candles/oil wicks.
This is a minor completely non-biblical festival, the story of which did not even make it into the Hebrew Bible/TaNaKh. In order to read about the great Maccabees you have to read the Apocrypha. The first mention of the festival in the Jewish canon is in the Babylonian Talmud, circa 500 CE. In other words, we have every reason to assert that Jesus and all other first century Judeans did not observe a festival commemorating the military victory or the miracle of oil!
So we can feel secure that Hannukah will not eclipse Christmas. Unless of course, we are honest that both festivals are brilliant attempts by the leaders of early post-Jesus Christianity and early rabbinic Judaism to push back against the popular Winter Solstice celebrations that brought light into the darkest time of the year.
Does it really matter theologically when Jesus is born–after all not even all the Gospels agree? Do Christians need a four-week run-up to celebrate a birth story that is certainly not from Jewish sources, biblical or rabbinic? Our global economy really needs every possible stimulus and when you realize that Black Friday should be a national economic holiday, well it is best in our current economic funk to keep quiet about the REAL meaning of Christmas.
Jews, however. might add something interesting to the conversation. The festival of lights reminds us that being a minority, then and now, requires much more than miracles. If you are going to consistently observe religious rites that are never, absolutely NEVER, acceptable to the dominant religious culture, then you as a community must depend upon yourselves, not the community-at-large. The Israelite culture was also a minority, a monotheistic commanded, group of freed slaves willing to follow the first ever Unseen and Unseeable Single God. Being the first monotheistic, anti-idolatry, faith community was not an easy identity, hence the Maccabees’ miracle was actually a reaffirmation of the vows made by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and later Moses and even later Amos and Isaiah. The one thing that links the Hebrews, Israelites, Jews and Israelis is the religious cultural obsession of defying whatever dominant religious culture in which we live.
Christmas is an amazing sacred affirmation of a messianic promise and now an economic and popular cultural period of needed communal and family celebrations. It is not necessary for Christians to stop and worry about reframing their Christmas wishes every time they think they are engaging a Jew, and it is not appropriate for Jews to adopt nor syncretize Christmas into Hannukah…so can we all agree that putting Stars of David on Christmas Trees is a bit much? For the many interfaith families, this can be a painful and stressful period of always being “unrequited” and the December Dilemma is very real and should not be dismissed as a mere sociological experience. For some Jews, this is an annual time of being reminded constantly that being a Jew requires a resilient identity.
So as the old saying goes: Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus, but he—Santa—has nothing to do with the real meaning of this season. More to the point of interfaith relations, let’s get through another Christmas so ALL of the non-Christians can relax and simply get on with their lives of being non-Christians in an overwhelming Christian dominant society.
Sorry, but Jesus the Judean (okay maybe a Jew) did not celebrate Hannukah, so please if anyone reading this EV Blog post wants to share in the Jewish identity of their savior, you could please leave the Hannukah lights to the Jews?
Joseph A. Edelheit