Virtual Talmud

A lot of attention has been given lately to a small but vocal segment of the population that sees Christmas–and, by extension, Christians–under attack, with the increasing use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Exhibit A has been the alleged banishing of any and all Christmas references in department stores, whether clerks have been instructed to wish patrons a non-specific “Happy Holidays” or whether such Christmas objects as ornaments have been repurposed as “holiday ornaments” to be hung on “holiday trees.”

On its face, there’s a certain logic to the complaint. Eighty percent of Americans are Christian (note carefully: meaning that they don’t belong to a non-Christian religion, not that they are necessarily practicing Christians), and certainly in many parts of the country that percentage is much higher. Isn’t it only appropriate to acknowledge the obvious fact that most Americans celebrate “Christmas,” not “Holiday”?

And the idea of a “holiday ornament” is particularly silly. Are Jews suddenly going to start hanging glass baubles with pictures of Santa Claus and reindeer from their menorahs now that these are generic holiday ornaments and not Christmas ornaments?

Clearly, the symbols of Christmas need to be identified for what they actually are, and this cuts to the point of the whole debate. Because there is no shortage of Christian symbols this time of year–I haven’t personally heard any department stores swapping “Deck the Halls” for “We Wish You a Merry Kwanzaa”–or of Americans celebrating Christmas.

Christmas appears alive and well, which is why the question of the motives of the anti-Happy Holidays campaign comes into play. Sadly, the purpose of the effort isn’t to get out a religious message: it’s to spread a political and cultural message that America is a Christian nation and that anyone who doesn’t fit the standard is less than a good American, a point none-too-subtly made when the conservative New York Post charged a Jewish Long Island town supervisor opposing Christian prayers at a tree-lighting ceremony with “Treeson.” In fact, the New York Times web site has reported that there is a deeply disturbing trend of these attacks on the “anti-Christmas” camp taking on an anti-Semitic tinge.

The fact is that the Save Christmas folks are trying to use this issue as a wedge in the cultural wars. It’s particularly ironic that the main battleground is department stores, because those who are arguing for these merchandizers to proudly proclaim “Merry Christmas” ultimately end up highlighting the commercial aspect of the holiday, detracting from the spiritual meaning of the celebration.

As a rabbi and a person who cares deeply about religious messages, I’m angered by these attempts at creating division and saddened by the cheapening of Christmas by using it to score political points. Christians should take joy and pride in the celebration of their holiday at this season, just as Jews do in Hanukkah and observers of Kwanzaa do in theirs.

The genius of America is that we don’t need to pretend we’re all the same in order to all be Americans. And as I light my Hanukkah candles this year, I’ll be reflecting on the blessings of this country and the religious freedom that the Maccabees fought to protect.

May we all enjoy a healthy and blessed holiday season.

News flash: Most Americans really don’t care what they are being told at the checkout counter. Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas. There are few moments where I favor disengagement over engagement, but this issue is one of them. This is a lose-lose matchup that highlights just how silly and futile this secular vs. religious battle has become.

I can’t help but laugh and cry all at once when I hear somone trying to defend either side. It reminds me of those famous 1980s Budweiser Beer commercials where two drunkards get into a fist fight over something as silly as does the beer “taste great or is it less filling.” The Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays debate demonstrates how at a certain point two sides can become so intoxicated with the fight itself that they forget about what they were fighting about in the first place.

Can someone please tell me when a used car salesman and the lady at Bloomingdales trying to sell me a bottle of cologne became the High Priests of American life? Most commentators and pundits have turned Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays into a fight between secularism run amok and religious fundamentalism gone wild. Unfortunately, the only winner in this battaille royale is political correctness.

The loosers in all of this are, of course, the holidays themselves. It seems that this Christmas and Hanukkah Americans, pathetically, have traded in canon law and halakha for the rules and regulations of corporate America. The scope and meaning of these sacred days are now based on the advertising whims of some CEO at Walmart. By making this into a “serious” issue, we as a country have made corporate America the final voice over all aspects of our lives. How sad.

Maybe it’s because I am New Yorker, but I just don’t care all that much about what someone says to me as I am running out of the store to catch the next train uptown. Sure, some nicety with a thank-you puts a smile on my face–but for only about a half a second. It’s a sad statement on our culture that we are more concerned with the perfunctory words muttered over a receipt then we are with the substantive words intoned by rabbis, ministers, and priests.

Sure, as a student and worshipper of religion, I would be thrilled if what we were discussing was the theological significance of Jesus’ birth, the religious worldview of the Maccabees, and the role of miracles in history. But I know that kind of stuff does not exactly excite the people who monitor the Nielsen ratings.

But what about some simple old-fashioned message about Jesus as someone who brought love into this world and helped feed those who were hungry? Why can’t we hear more about about redemption and the basic message of Hanukkah that good guys do win. Why can’t we hear more about love and charity and less about the formalities, manners, and mores of saying hello and goodbye?

By making this a debate about two words mumbled over a checkout counter we have turned the holidays into the same products we are buying. Two thousand years of literature, celebration, and worship have been boiled down to the lowest common denominator of do you or don’t you say Merry Christmas! C’mon. We’re not two-year-olds who need to be taught how to say hello and goodbye. Can we all just grow up a little, and move on to something that really matters?

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, 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
  • Hanukkah – the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Not really, of course: Holidays like Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur and even (especially!) the weekly observance of Shabbat have far more religious significance. In fact, religiously speaking, Hanukkah hardly rates. But all that goes out the window every December, when Jews flock to the mall amidst a flurry of wreaths, Christmas carols, and Santa Clauses. In 21st-century America, Hanukkah is a holiday that’s all about identity.

    Jews are a minority in this country, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. And while we’ve made tremendous strides into the mainstream, with Jews in prominent positions throughout the country and Yiddish phrases peppering sitcoms beamed into the heartland, every December we’re not-so subtly reminded that we live in a predominantly Christian country. Which is fine, because it gives Jews a chance to proclaim their different, minority status and to affirm their identity against the larger cultural norms, much as the Maccabees resisted Antiochus’ attempts to assimilate them in the initial episode that gave rise to Hanukkah.

    And when Hanukkah falls on Christmas itself as it does this year, these questions only get sharpened: Do you go to your friends’ (or relatives’!) Christmas parties or do you stay home to light the menorah? Or do you bring it with you to the Christmas party? Do you watch ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ by the light of the Hanukkah candles to discover the true meaning of the holiday? The choices we make implicitly speak to the way we define ourselves over and against the larger American society. And from this perspective, Hanukkah truly is important, by giving us a chance to boldly and loudly proclaim our difference.

    What does this difference consist of? When it comes to Hanukkah, it’s not so readily apparent. At first blush, one frenzy of shopping and gift-giving doesn’t look so very different from another–after all, is one present for eight nights so different from eight presents in one night? And while lighting the menorah and reciting the blessings are certainly a distinctive part of the Hanukkah celebration, their religious significance can easily get lost among the general festivities. This is why I think that Hanukkah in America is ultimately a holiday of identity.

    By lighting the menorah, we affirm that we are Jewish, that we are different. It is together with the other holidays of the Jewish calendar– in fact, with the way we live our lives day-in, day-out and try to suffuse the everyday with holiness–that we can instill content in our difference and add meaning to our Jewishness. But on Hanukkah, at the season of the December Dilemma, proudly proclaiming our identity may be a good start.