Beliefnet
Virtual Talmud

Baruch Hashem (Thank God) for Macy’s. No matter how much Jews forget their Judaism, no matter how much they assimilate, no matter how much they intermarry, Macy’s will ensure that each and every Jew never forgets Hanukkah. For most American Jews, Hanukkah has become “the time of year when mom buys us Xboxes and Ipods and we light some candles.”

It’s easy being morally self-righteous around Hanukkah’s orgy of consumerism. But wagging our spiritual fingers at American Jewry as it sacrifices its paychecks to the gods of online shopping is far too simple and misses the social energy invested in this holiday. When Jews buy into Hanukkah, they are less tapping into their savings account than they are reveling in and revealing their power, success, and achievement.

Over the past 50 years American Jews have gone from being powerless to very powerful. We have gone from being Davids to being Goliaths of industry, politics, and the academy. I will spare you the clichéd self-congratulatory statistics. Nonetheless, many Jews continue to see themselves as powerless outsiders struggling against the evil forces of anti-Semitism and social marginalization.

I recently attended a culture and arts event in the Bay area, and the only thing that the 750-plus crowd dressed in what was dubbed “bar-mitzvah chic” could agree on was that being Jewish meant being an outsider and questioning societal norms.

I am sorry, kids, but you are either delusional, or you just don’t want to accept the responsibility of being powerful and influential. But more disconcerting than the mere blinders standing between their responses and their checkbook, is just how dangerously irresponsible it is for insiders to claim they are outsiders.

As my friend Daniel Septimus, editor of myjewishlearning.com, likes to point out, such thinking breeds the worst forms of social irresponsibility. When those who reside on the inside of American economic, political, and intellectual circles claim they exist on the margins, they a-priori recuse themselves from the responsibility of offering solutions and fixing the problems they feel exist in society. It is easy to be an outsider criticizing a powerful force; it’s much more difficult accepting responsibility for that force and harnessing it in an ethical and just way.

It is not only futile but unfair to ask Jews not to flaunt, spend, and celebrate their wealth and power. Let’s stop denying reality by claiming that Jews are something economically and socially they aren’t. And let’s let go of the perverse wish that we were once again poor outsiders. (You know, like the good old days in nineteenth-century Russia, where a Hanukkah gift was a spoiled piece of orange.)

Which brings me back to Hanukkah and to what some see as a celebration of material excess cloaked in the spiritual guise of gift-giving. We should stop being shocked that some children get eight gifts. Obviously, the parents can afford it. Instead, we need to start asking what is the family’s gift/charity ratio? Power and wealth corrupt only if those who have them at their disposal use them for selfish ends.

  • Rabbi Joshua Waxman: A Celebration of Identity
  • Rabbi Susan Grossman: A Hanukkah Epiphany
  • Previous Posts
    Join the Discussion
    comments powered by Disqus