Ask the Rabbi

Rabbi Carla Freedman
December 2020 QUESTION:

The community that I live in puts up some (relatively) benign decorations for Christmas, but nothing for Chanukah. Should I press them on this point?

December 2020 ANSWER:

That’s up to you.

But I can offer some comments. First, communities around here all have their own operating bylaws, so you would need to find out what the bylaws require and/or permit the community to do on its property.

Second, you need to consider what message you want to convey.

Chanukah is, as I always, rather tediously point out, a minor Jewish festival…not a “holy day” per se. The only reason it gets any attention outside the Jewish community is its proximity to Christmas. In fact, from the Jewish perspective, Chanukah is on par with Purim…celebrating events which took place (if the events of Purim did happen at all) after the Torah was closed (c. 425 BCE).

The rationale behind adding some token Chanukah decorations to the Christmas decorations put up everywhere at this season is something about “religious equality”.

The United States Supreme Court ruled that, in accordance of “separation between church and state”, there should be no religious symbols on publicly owned property; hence, no creches at post offices, etc. But people can do what they want on their own property. Each Home Owners Association is therefore free to make its own policies on this matter.
Out of sensitivity to their Jewish members, many HOAs include a menorah amongst their holiday decorations.

However, technically, that is a violation of the Supreme Court ruling, because the menorah is the religious symbol of Chanukah. Santas and reindeer, gift packages, and even Christmas trees are permitted by the Supreme Court ruling because they are not associated with the religious message of Christmas. But the lighting of Chanukah candles is the only religious act (complete with appropriate blessings) required to observe Chanukah. A dreidl, Chanukah gelt, latkes, or jelly donuts (the Sephardic tradition) would be “kosher” on publicly owned property, but a menorah would not be.

This is a distinction that seems to have gotten lost in either the joy of the season or the commercial aspect of it; merchants certainly don’t want their Jewish customers to feel left out or to be offended by an absence of recognition.

So you need to decide what you are trying to accomplish in asking or some Chanukah decorations on your community’s property. Unfortunately, most non-Jews would recognize a menorah as a Chanukah item, but not a dreidl…though we could change that perception by making dreidls more visible, but that would take a lot of coordination and cooperation amongst Jews, and a lot of explaining, too. And we Jews are not exactly famous for cooperation and coordination amongst ourselves.

As a result of the recognizability of the menorah as a symbol of Chanukah, we find menorahs…with or without the right number of candles each day…on display in medical offices, schools, and business of all sorts. These appear without any regard for the actual dates on which Chanukah is observed (because the idea of a calendar being different from the one we use secularly is beyond many people’s consideration). If there is a Jewish person employed in these places, should that person police the menorah, making sure that the number of candles is right each day? Should that person let the management know when Chanukah actually occurs each year?

So, again, I say that you need to think through the message you want to give to your community.

In addition, I would encourage you to put up your own Chanukah decorations on your own property. You can put up a menorah that changes each day (as does the one on our temple’s front yard), and other things that you deem appropriate, tasteful, and celebratory.
You could invite your neighbors to watch you light the menorah on your yard (wearing masks, staying six feet apart)…and offer sufganiyot (those jelly donuts!) by way of celebrating Chanukah on its own terms.

I will be interested to hear from you what you think of all this, and what you decide to do, if anything.

And…Happy Chanukah!!

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