Why is there more talk each year about this being a season where our holidays are "under siege"?
The "war on Christmas" language-and you hear that language much more from the Christian world than from the Jewish world-I'm actually sympathetic to it. Not because I think there's an actual war on Christmas; I do think that there is a kind of bankruptcy to political correctness that tells people to call 12-foot blue spruces covered with ornaments, crystals, and lights a "holiday tree." That's ridiculous, because it just begs the question: What holiday? Christmas!
It's crazy. Because that's not a war on Christmas. In the desire not to say anything hurtful, which was the beautiful motivation behind political correctness, we've gotten carried away. The price we pay for not saying anything hurtful is not saying anything meaningful at all. So they're right in saying, "Stop telling me I have to call that a 'holiday tree.' That is offensive." It is offensive. Unless you want to call it a holiday tree because you like the observance without the holiday. That 's another question: It is a holiday tree for a whole lot of people who say, "I have no interest in Christmas, but what a beautiful thing to put colored lights in my house."
As a rabbi, do you have a problem with a Jew who wants to do that?
If someone said to me, "I really think that's going to be the be all and end all of the future of the Jewish people," I would say they're crazy. We have the exact same ritual, except with candles. It's the coldest, darkest time of the year, so these traditions say to their adherents, you can make it light.
There is nothing more fraught for Jews than to bring one of "those trees" into a Jewish home. Why?
It is beautiful. My guess is that in the past, most Jews didn't know how to make Hanukkah as beautiful as those trees. And so the only commandments left for the season were, don't do what the Christians do, and don't believe what Christians believe.
I remember asking for a Christmas tree. The more we wanted a Christmas tree, the more two things happened: the more our parents took us around to see other people's and the more important Hanukkah became in our house. The impulse is a great impulse. It's just that most parents didn't know what to do with it; they couldn't imagine doing up Hanukkah really big, so the only thing they could think to do is to say no.
And what about the fact that the trees are pagan rather than Christian?
What does that "actually" mean? Hanukkah menorahs are actually Zoroastrian. Tefillin [two leather boxes, containing parchment scrolls with verses from Exodus and Deutoronomy, one worn on the head and the other on the arm of observant Jews when reciting morning prayers] are actually Canaanite. Everything has its roots in something else.
Should we be teaching children those historical linkages?
Yes, for one reason: So that nobody ever believes that they own the full story of their symbol.
That's so interesting, because everybody is so defensive about the "uniqueness" of his practice.
Right. If it's not unique, it's not real, it doesn't count. What if it was just the opposite? We might not blow up as many things in the world in the name of God.
That's a beautiful and revolutionary idea. How does it help Jews and Christians think about the holiday season?
Wouldn't it be amazing if in every community, they said, "Wow, they're doing the exact, same thing today. But they're doing it with different tools. They, when it's cold and dark, want heat and light. We, when it's cold and dark, want heat and light. Jews do it with the story that there was a possibility of a miraculous, little resource inside each of us that will last longer and burn brighter than we ever imagined. And Christians look at a little baby, about whom nothing could possibly be known, and say that from that child, the world will be saved. It's the same story.
The reason I can say this is because my heart is so filled up with Hanukkah that Christmas is no threat. All of this business of threat is a deflection. Because if I can teach you that "theirs" is bad, I never have to talk about why "ours" is good.