Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
For decades the issue of the Jewish festival of Chanukah falling in close proximity to the Christian festival of Christmas has been for many Jews a problem, a challenge. Historians can talk also of the Roman festival of Saturnalia and other winter festivals, most of which involve lights somehow and some of which fall on the 25th. of a month, but these matters are of little interest to the average member of a Jewish community. All that he or she sees is that, all around us, impossible to ignore, are signs of another religion. Some of these signs are spiritual, some pretend to be, and many are blatantly materialist or commercial. Reference is made to the importance of Family and – especially – of giving presents, most of which would have to be bought first, thus revealing the importance of this time of year for commercial 'turnover’ and profit. I am not such an expert on Poland, which is currently a Catholic country seeking a rather conservative version of that religion, but I can assure you that in many other parts of Europe the entire period from the middle of October onwards is occupied with preparations for a few days of – of Something. But what? Just a few days of holiday from work? Religious holiday? Family holiday? Special dinners for the firm and parties for the office staff? Banal music, some of it old, some of it classical, some of it Hollywood, some of it contemporary and saccharine-sweetened, much of it hypocritical, fill the shops and streets and radio waves. Films involving snow and poor children and ”Ho Ho Ho!” fill the television screens, nowadays mixed up bizarrely with reindeer (an animal never mentioned in either the so-called 'Old’ or 'New’ Testaments) and sleighs and ballets and nutcrackers and ghost stories or turkeys or geese or carp. Thousands of trees are felled so as to be able to stand in overheated rooms and dry out as a symbol of what used to be ”evergreen” but is now ironically a metaphor for global warming and the death of forests. Fairy lights are spread over houses and streets. There is so much more – Oh, I hardly need to tell you of it – and one cannot escape it. I would imagine that almost everyone here has non-Jewish colleagues or neighbours or friends and especially family members, and every year there comes this big question: To what extent can one combine these festivals, and to what extent can one NOT? In Germany even the so-called 'Jewish Museum’ in Berlin organises a 'Weihnukkah’ Market – a combination (they claim) of 'Weihnachten’ – the German term for Christmas – and Chanukah. Interestingly the German word 'Weihen’ has the same meaning as the Hebrew 'Chanukah’ – it means 'to dedicate’! – and is different to other terms used in different parts of the country – for example, in the Catholic South one has a 'Christkindl’ Market rather than a 'Weihnachtsmarkt’. So far (as far as I know) 'Kindle’ has not jumped onto this bandwagon to sell more electronic books, and the word has not been linked to the English word ”to kindle”, meaning to light candles. But I am sure it won’t take long….. In other words, what originated as a religious festival – actually a very important one for a new religion based upon the birth of their new messianic figure – has become irredeemably mixed with heathen, pagan European cultural symbols to do with surviving the winter, the darkness, the need for fatty food, warmth of huddling together in the family or the tribe while the world outside is cold, dark and dangerous.
And where do the Jews fit into this?
The simple answer is that we don’t. Of course simple answers like this never fit totally and we know that a fundamentalist denial of everything, a refusal to open one’s eyes or to leave the home for two and a half months from October, doesn’t work – of course Jews are involved. But JUDAISM is not. And here is the difference.
The Jewish festival of Chanukah focusses upon this question. The histories or pseudo-histories given in the Books of Maccabees are quite violent and bloodthirsty and this causes moral problems for some Liberal Jews, but I think we can look at things differently. The inner question is: What must one do to retain one’s own religion in a world filled with other alternatives? When surrounded by secularism or commercialism or messianism? How can one retain faith in God despite all the challenges?
Fascinating in the Chanukah stories is that God barely appears. (Just as God does not appear – openly – in the Purim story.) By this I mean that it is left to a group of Jews to decide that they have reached their limits of tolerance and that they want to do whatever they can to regain the spiritual centre of their faith. For them it was the Temple and the restoration of the sacrifices – we, now, may have different ideas. Although in our festival liturgy we sing triumphantly of how God, our 'Rock of Ages’, helped the few overcome the many, the weak triumph over the strong, in fact they had to set off and do it for themselves. No bands of angels were sent with fiery swords to do the fighting for them, indeed no new prophet was sent with a new inspiring message. God had somehow even allowed that the Temple might be desecrated and occupied! Chanukah is a festival of Jews as a minority – even amongst their own people and in their own land! This is rather ironic, but it means that in many respects it is a Diaspora story even though it is not set in the Diaspora.
So each of us is in effect confronted with the same personal challenges. I am not worried, as your rabbi, what you do with your families and your colleagues and your neighbours – a party is a party, a reunion is a reunion, respect for parents and love for siblings are important values, I am not worried about this, go off and enjoy the time, why not? But where can you locate, for YOURSELVES, the kernel of your religious identity? Where can you mention God in your own lives? In your own terms? Where can you find the hope that we all need, in difficult times? (And ALL times are difficult, even if cold winters often seem more difficult than hot summers).
At Chanukah we recall how some Jews, long ago and far away, tried to assert their own religious identity over that of the majority. Some of the story describes fanatics and fundamentalists and with these people we would want to have little to do. We do not need to – or want to – destroy other opinions. But other parts speak of the courage and self-sacrifice it took to be able to maintain one’s own faith in God despite what was being said (and worshipped) all around. The Maccabees didn’t wait for a big deep heavenly voice to come, they simply decided that to be Jewish meant to be Jewish – as it was then understood, with a cleansed priesthood and a cleansed altar and a rededicated Temple. We may understand the demands of Judaism differently, without a Temple – but we still have the values.
What do WE have to dedicate ourselves to, and how do WE cleanse ourselves, and how do WE perceive our duties to God? These are questions which Chanukah gives us. These questions are perhaps the best and the most meaningful presents we will get! Enjoy them!