From the Rabbi’s Desk December, 2019
Rabbi Carla Freedman
It seems to me that every year, a certain December holiday encroaches on many spaces, public and private, earlier and earlier. This year, I noticed some of the decorations in stores before Hallowe’en, and with Thanksgiving still three weeks away as I write this, there are lots of catalogues in the mail, promoting their “holiday” wares.
So approaches the season when we Jews are made very conscious that we are not in the majority here. There have been many legal battles fought over the limits on religious expression in the public domain. And, oddly, I think we are the losers in those battles, even though some limits have been achieved.
In order not to violate the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution, the Supreme Court has variously ruled that as long as a religious symbol is not used to advance any particular religion, it can be placed on public property. Many government offices and facilities have opted to avoid decorations that are unequivocally religious in nature. Thus, we rarely see a crèche on public property, but private businesses and offices often display them, because they express the owners’ religious beliefs.
By far the most common decorations at this season feature Santa Claus, reindeer and a “Christmas tree”. These things are not actually associated with the religious message of Christmas, so we see them everywhere. In fact, the tree itself is well known to be a borrowing from pagan practices, while Santa Claus and the reindeer are most clearly connected to the giving of gifts and the spending of money, clearly not a religious thought at all.
Lots of places have added a hanukah menorah to their Christmas display, whether out of the intent to include Jews in the holiday spirit or to entice Jews to spend money on gifts as our Christian neighbours do. I have seen these menorahs in doctors’ offices, grocery stores, hospitals and nursing homes, and at some government facilities. Usually, no one attends to the adding of a new candle every evening. And, when Chanukah comes early (so to speak), the menorah stays in the display long after its proper time.
The truth is, of course, that the menorah (or chanukiyah) is the quintessential religious symbol of Chanukah, having been invented to celebrate a religious “miracle”. The lighting of the Chanukah candles is the only religious act of the holiday, complete with the requisite blessings. If people want to acknowledge Chanukah without using this clear religious symbol, they could put up dreidls. The dreidl is the Jewish counterpart to Santa and the reindeer.
But the bottom line is that we as Jews should not allow one of our religious ritual objects to become part of a commercial campaign. This is not a matter of “equal time”. We should be the ones to determine what can be used to convey our presence in the community, while preserving our ritual objects for their intended use.
Chanukah is a minor event on the Jewish calendar, celebrating the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Greeks. This was the first known battle for the preservation of religious freedom. We should not let that message of Chanukah be obscured by the desire for recognition of our existence as a religious minority. To protect that message, we need to keep Chanukah true to its own meaning and origins, and to celebrate it on its own terms.
We do have something to celebrate at Chanukah, so let’s just do that!
I hope you’ll come to celebrate Chanukah with us on Friday, December 27th, in the sanctuary, and to the Chanukah party hosted by the sisterhood and the Men’s Club, on December 29, in the Social Hall.