2016-06-30
Holiday season 2005 brings the convergence of Christmas and Hannukah, which begins on Christmas day this year for the first time since 1959. The unusual synchronicity highlights a perennial American debate about whether Christmas is under siege by the politically correct and the radical secularists. Jews, too, get caught in the seasonal crossfire: Do they need to deny the culture's near-saturation Christmas consciousness to celebrate their own winter holiday? Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan recently spoke to Bradley Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi and vice president of CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, about his road map for peace in the "Christmas Wars."

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.

So this is the bellicose approach to Jewish identity?

Yeah, but it's not consciously that way. And 100 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to say this, because the average gentile 100 years ago, even in this country, hated the average Jew. So I understand that we felt that way for a long time. But when we hate each other, even if what I'm saying is theoretically true, it's not real in practice. But to live in this moment in time when we finally would rather make love to each other than murder each other--to keep teaching that is really not healthy.

Again, I want to be clear: I'm comfortable doing this because Hanukkah fills up my heart and my home. So I can take my kids around and show them Christmas trees and I love it. And I don't call them Hanukkah trees, and I don't call them holiday trees. They're Christmas trees. And I love that they know that there are more ways than one to do this.

How should we think of Hanukkah in relation to Christmas?

One place to start: Hanukkah is not a minor holiday. The notion that something is "post-biblical" doesn't make it one iota less significant. In truth, we don't practice biblical, Israelite religion. If we did, I'd get up in the morning and slaughter a goat instead of putting on tefillin. So what happened is, Jews, who knew they could never compete in America with Christmas, said, "Actually, there is no competition, because Hanukkah is not very important. Let the gentiles have their important day. We shouldn't try to compete."

And so a terrible thing was done: Some Jews engineered teaching other Jews to think less of an incredibly beautiful holiday. But thank God, American Jews are very smart, and they said to their rabbis and teachers, you're idiots. We know this is an important day, and that's why it's the second-most observed Jewish event in the annual calendar, second only to Passover.

So what many Jews were taught about Hanukkah's importance is not true?

We were told it was an unimportant holiday That's ridiculous. Because we don't observe Judaism according to the Bible. Jewish tradition is alive and evolving. And the rules of [later] rabbinic Judaism are actually much more germane to what Judaism looks like than the Bible. We don't offer sacrifices, and we don't practice polygamy, and we don't all live in the land of Israel.

Shopping and spirituality
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  • Many Christians feel that Christmas has been over-commercialized. Jews too have been seduced by the push to buy gifts.

    I try not to use words like "seduced" and "overcommercialized," because I figure that people's value of things and people's values are closely related. If you want to know what's in people's hearts and minds, go shopping with them. So to me, commerce is actually a magnificent barometer of what we're feeling.

    [I think] that gift-giving, and sharing, and over-the-top, absolutely inexplicable, irrational acts counter to their own economic self-interest are magnificent. I think it's beautiful that at the coldest, darkest time of the year, we choose to celebrate that capacity for light and heat and warmth within each of us.

    You don't think it diminishes the spiritual intensity of the holidays to engage in all that buying?

    That's all part of it. The idea that you can separate spirit from commerce is like telling us that you can separate body, mind, and spirit. The rap of "too much commerce" came from embittered priests and ministers and rabbis, who said, "How come I'm not determining what those people are doing?" And people were smart enough to say "No, we don't know what the books tell us this day should be about. But we know the look in the eyes of a kid when you give him a present. And we want that feeling."

    It is absolutely true that the range of stuff that we can buy has spiraled enormously. And we ought to think about the whole set of questions it raises about consumption. But the idea that we would pit buying a gift for someone we love against spirituality is perverse. To give gifts is a spiritual act. And everyone who does it with a full heart, or receives one with a full heart, knows that.

    Is it because people didn't know how to interpret Hanukkah? The historical basis for the holiday?

    Most people don't care about the historical basis. I think most parents need to figure out that the story of the miracle of the oil is very profound, because it teaches that inside little containers there's big stuff, and that's precisely what kids need to hear, because they are the little containers.

    It's not about getting the facts straight. The adults in many Jewish homes don't want to take Hanukkah seriously, and their kids are smart and know that. So the kids say, if we're not going to take Hanukkah seriously, let's at least do this other holiday, because the whole country seems to take that one seriously.

    How about when your children see the baby Jesus in the manger, and they ask you what that means?

    I've told them parts of the Jesus story. And what I tell them is that what Christians believe is that God sent this person, Jesus, who was the messiah. And they believe that he will come back and finish the job. And that we believe that because the job wasn't finished, he couldn't have been the messiah, but that we're actually waiting for the exact same thing.

    Do you think that this year, because of all the negative things that have happened in the world, that people's sense of hopefulness is muted? And if so, how can we think about what has happened in a different way?

    Thanksgiving celebrates the here and now, and people are pretty depressed about the here and now. Hanukkah and Christmas celebrate the there and then. We're so depressed about here and now that we're yearning to celebrate the there and then, because at least then it seemed to work out OK. (laughter)

    This might be the year when you've got to focus if you're Jewish on whether or not you believe in miracles-the idea that that little reservoir can hold more than you can possibly imagine-and allow yourself to trust in that. And if you're Christian, to really focus not on the baby Jesus but the baby part. Who could have possibly known in that little manger that a family from Nazareth on its way to Jerusalem was going to give birth to the messiah?

    It's hard in this era. All we can do is know that somehow kicking around inside us in both of these communities for over 2,000 years is a basic intuition that things can always be more than they seem.

    All the stuff about saying "Happy holidays" and not saying "Merry Christmas" is offensive to Christians. As I was getting out of a cab last night, a cab driver said "Merry Christmas" to me. He was African, and he saw my kippah and said, "I see your hat. You're religious. Merry Christmas." And I said "Merry Christmas to you." He wasn't trying to convert me and he wasn't trying to take over our culture. He was actually offering me the most sincere blessing he knew. And everyone on the left is going to have to chill out, because every time you hear "Merry Christmas" it is not someone who's trying to convert you or take over your school.

    The people on the right are also going to have to relax. Because they're going to have to accept that when we start saying "Merry Christmas" again and they call it a Christmas tree again, they have an obligation to make sure that everyone else's words and symbols are as protected as theirs.

    Is it a basic human tendency to want not just to be secure in your own perspective but extinguish the other perspective?

    No. The need to extinguish the other is learned. And the same way we learn to have that impulse, we can learn to have an embracing impulse.

    So what's the message we should take away as we head toward December 25?

    Simple. Everyone should reach into whatever tradition they love most and celebrate it bigger than they ever imagined.

    Is it OK for us to celebrate with friends of other faiths?

    Yeah. But there's a second rule: Do something that helps make sure that other people who are celebrating different things get to celebrate theirs as well. Because right now, the people who tend to celebrate their own tradition most profoundly tend to ignore that there's anyone else in the world. And people who know that we're all in it together are actually afraid to reach into any one tradition so deeply and celebrate it really fully.

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