Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, December 17, 2004
Amazingly enough, in spite of the fact that I still haven't shaken this Thanksgiving-era cough, we had our usual annual Hanukkah party last Sunday, and all went splendidly. Menu:
  • Latkes (of course)
  • 2 kinds of fruit sauce: apple-pear-pineapple (made by me) and just plain apple (brought by a friend)
  • Blini with sour cream, salmon roe, 2 kinds of herring and chopped smoked salmon salad
  • Spinach quiche
  • Fried fish cubes marinated in garlic and herbs
  • Tarragon eggs
  • Artichoke bottoms stuffed with a pine nut/parsley/anchovy/parmesan/etc stuffing
  • Shaved fennel and apple salad
  • Crudites and pita wedges with artichoke/parmesan dip, mushroom tapenade, and lima bean puree
  • A variety of cheeses, nuts, pickles, olives, dried fruits and chocolates
  • Ricotta fritters (brought by a friend)
  • Fig cookies
  • Almond-raisin cookies
  • Tiramisu (brought by a friend)

Everyone seemed happy with the results, except my wife who mostly seemed tired. (Actually she had a lovely time, but we both agreed that what with lingering colds and such we really should try to figure out how to reduce the workload next year, probably by hiring someone to help set up, clean up and serve drinks, and by making more things that can be done as much as a week in advance - like the quiche - without suffering, and fewer things that really have to be done day-of - like the eggs. Blini were a big hit, though, so even though they are fairly labor-intensive they'll probably be back.)

Hanukkah itself was lovely. Our son got really into the holiday. He had his own miniature menorah which he was very eager to help in lighting, and learned bits of several songs and the prayers. The local Chabad lights a large, public menorah at the corner of the park, which we went to see lit two of the nights. And, unfortunately, our son was bewitched by the prospect of nightly presents. But he'll get over that. I hope.

While we're on the topic, though, I thought I'd ruminate about the whole "holiday season" business. Hanukkah is a strange holiday to "program" against Christmas. The messages of the two holidays are quite different, and they are of unequal significance as well. Hanukkah is really a minor holiday. The most important holidays on the Jewish calendar are the High Holidays (the Day of Remembrance, or New Year, and the Day of Atonement); the Three Festivals (Passover in the spring, Pentecost in the summer, and Tabernacles in the autumn); and the Sabbath. All of these are of biblical origin and hence of paramount significance.

After these in importance are three holidays of post-biblical origin: Purim, celebrating the redemption of the Jews from the hands of Haman, as recounted in the Book of Esther; Hanukkah, celebrating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Hasmonean victory of the Seleucids; and the Ninth of Av, lamenting the destruction of the Temple. (There are also a number of minor fast days and holidays, many of which are associated with one of the other holidays on this list - thus the Tenth of Tevet is a fast connected with the Ninth of Av, and the Fifteenth of Av is a joyous day similarly connected; the Fast of Esther precedes Purim; the 33rd day of the Omer is a holiday that interrupts the Lent-like period of the Omer that connects Passover and Pentecost; Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel's Independence Day are, respectively, days of lamentation and joy that commemorate national events of much more recent vintage; etc.).

Hanukkah, then, makes the Top Ten holidays list (counting the recurring Sabbath as one holiday) but not the Top Five. It is, clearly, not in the same league as Christmas.

Even among the minor holidays, meanwhile, Hanukkah is viewed with some ambivalence by the rabbis. Don't get me wrong: the holiday is canonical. Maimonides says that you should sell the shirt off your back if that's the only way you can afford to light a menorah. But there are signs that the rabbis were not so thrilled about aspects of the holiday. On Purim and the Ninth of Av, we read from canonical texts that relate to the events the days commemorate; on Purim we read the Book of Esther, and on the Ninth of Av we read the Book of Lamentations. There are Books of Maccabees that relate the events of Hanukkah - four of them, as a matter of fact - but they are not part of the Jewish canon. (Catholics value them as part of the Apocrypha.) 1 Maccabees was composed in the Land of Israel and was probably originally written in Hebrew (the only version we have today is a Greek translation), and the book is the textual basis for the holiday of Hanukkah, which was canonical. All these reasons should have made that book at the least a candidate for inclusion in the canon, but it was not so accepted. That points, I think, to a rabbinic problem with the story of the holiday as articulated in the book.

Hanukkah was, basically, a national holiday commemorating a military and national victory, and much beloved by the common people. But the rabbis were ambivalent about these very elements that made it popular. The story - particularly as told in 1 Maccabees - largely exalts human agency. There's a scene in 1 Maccabees where the Hasmoneans are on the run, and the Sabbath is approaching; they have to decide if they will break the Sabbath to save their lives or observe the Sabbath and hope for the best. They decide to break the Sabbath. (Interestingly, 2 Maccabees - which was not originally written in Hebrew, but in Greek - tells the same story but with the opposite conclusion: the rebels observe the Sabbath, and it all works out OK anyhow.) The rabbis were probably unconfortable with a book that seems to rely so much on the power of man (albeit exercised in a Godly conflict) - particularly given the failure of the revolt against Rome that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem. The rabbis looked far more favorably on the story of Purim, with its emphasis on the hidden hand of God moving through history, than on the story of Hanukkah.

Moreover, the Hasmoneans, leaders of the victorious rebellion against the Seleucids, wound up, once in power, (a) usurping the Kingship (they were not the legitimate heirs to the throne); (b) corrupting the High Priesthood (combining it with the monarchy and then ultimately auctioning it off to wealthy priestly families); and (c) engaging in the same "Hellenizing" practices that they so objected to as rebels.

But Hanukkah nonetheless commemorated a genuine miracle - the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days rather than one, and hence made possible the rededication of the Temple - and the rabbis embraced it in those terms.

Besides being a minor holiday, and far from central to the Jewish religious narrative as Christmas is in the Christian religious narrative, Hanukkah is a decidedly particularist holiday, where Christmas is universalist. Judaism is, ultimately, universalist, but it gets to universalism through particularism. And Hanukkah speaks specifically to that particularism; it's a holiday of national deliverance, about the rededication of our Temple, the liberation of our people. Yes, these events ultimately have universal significance, but you're starting several steps removed. Christianity, by contrast, trumpets its universalism, and nowhere more clearly than in the story of Christmas, about God's presence on Earth becoming material and concrete.

It is a bit ridiculous, then, to see how our culture has on the one hand tried to suppress official recognition of Christmas (not only by the government but by other nonpublic but impersonal bodies; how many corporations send out Christmas cards as opposed to seasonal "holiday" cards?) while on the other hand ostentatiously celebrating Hanukkah alongside what recognition Christmas gets as if the presence of a menorah somehow "kashered" a Christmas tree. A Hanukkah menorah most certainly does not "universalize" a Christmas tree; if anything, the opposite is true: it turns the tree, which symbolizes a holiday whose message is "joy to the world and peace on Earth" into a particularist symbol like the menorah itself.

And it is very strange indeed that, as my boss related to me yesterday, his kids are learning Hanukkah songs at school but no "religious" Christmas songs ("Frosty the Snowman" is OK, but not "Silent Night") or that a lawyer we deal with, a Lutheran, can report that her son came home the other day and announced that he wishes he could celebrate Hanukkah (which he'd been learning about at his public school). Inasmuch as it is a religious holiday, Hanukkah should be just as problematic to the anti-religious vigilantes as Christmas; and inasmuch as it's a holiday with communal overtones, it's a holiday celebrated by the Jewish people, not the American people.

Of course, as a Jew, I appreciate the gesture. Having a menorah in the lobby of my building is nice - it says, in effect, "hey, we know this is your holiday now; have a good one." But I'm not entirely happy with it. Public celebration of Hanukkah distorts the holiday. There is, for example, no obligation on Jews to see someone else light a Hanukkah menorah; the obligation is to light one yourself. Public officials, meanwhile, will inevitably aver that Hanukkah is a celebration of "religious freedom" which, really, it isn't; the Hasmoneans were revolting against a regime they thought was corrupting proper religious practice, and the miracle the Hanukkah celebrates is about the continued efficacy of the traditional means of atonement (Temple sacrifice). Neither of these has anything to do with religious liberty.

If I ran the zoo, public recognition of Hanukkah would, very simply, mean public officials and forums making space for Jewish groups to recognize and celebrate the holiday. I think it's great that the Lubavitchers can put up a big, public menorah in my neighborhood. And if any other religious group wants space and time to celebrate publicly and openly, without disrupting traffic or otherwise making themselves a nuisance, God bless them and I hope Kings County and the City of New York make it as easy as possible for them to do their thing, and that Borough President Marty Markowitz and State Senator Carl Andrews show up to say a few words. But if your company wants to send out Christmas cards, or your building wants to have a tree with a creche and some wise men and donkeys under it in the lobby, God bless you, too, and you certainly shouldn't be under any social obligation to be "inclusive" in your celebration.

If I had to compare Hanukkah to an American and Christian holiday, it would not be Christmas, but rather Thanksgiving. What, ultimately, are we giving thanks for on Thanksgiving? For the fact that the American experiment was going to go forward, apparently with God's blessing. The Pilgrims of Massachusetts saw that they would survive, and our presence here is a consequence of their survival. Hanukkah, similarly, celebrates God's continued favor: the cleansing and rededication of the Temple was made possible by a miracle, which proved that God still showed favor on the Temple and on the people who depended on its rites for atonement.

If I had to compare Christmas with a Jewish holiday, meanwhile, the best candidate would be Tabernacles - Sukkot, in Hebrew. Sukkot is referred to in Hebrew as "The Season of our Joy" (Passover is "The Season of our Liberation" and Pentecost is, "The Season of our Receiving the Torah"). The holiday commemorates the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness prior to entry into the Land of Israel. But the thrust of the holiday points forward, to Messianic days when the Temple will be restored and, as Isaiah prophecies, all nations will worship at God's holy mountain. Significantly, unlike the Passover sacrifice which only Israelites could partake of, the sacrifices of Sukkot could be joined in by any nation who worshipped the one true God. Sukkot is a major holiday, of comparable religious significance to Jews as Christmas is to Christians; and it is a holiday with a particularly universal message, and one of joy and peace and Messianic fulfillment, just as Christmas' message is.

There are even below-the-surface resonances. For example: on Sukkot, we dwell in booths, temporary structures open to the elements, to symbolize our dependence on the Divine for protection and to recall the wandering in the wilderness. That surely resonates with the Christian story of Jesus born in a manger (and for all I know there's a historic connection between the two; you tell me).

And Sukkot, unlike Hanukkah, offers non-Jewish proprietors and building owners the opportunity to actually help Jews practice their religion, should they choose to. On Sukkot, as noted, we "dwell" in booths. This is understood, minimally, to involve eating meals in these booths, which must be temporary structures open to the sky, with only loose thatch on top. They must be erected after the High Holidays and are taken down after Sukkot. Obviously, the need to eat in one of these structures is a problem for working people at lunchtime (and for some, like apartment-dwellers, at all times). A business who wanted to show "sensitivity" to Jewish citizens could allow a local synagogue or whatnot to erect a small sukkah (booth) on the business's property during the holiday, for the convenience of those who need a place to fulfill the mitzvah.

Unfortunately, Sukkot falls in the autumn, in late September or October. So it's never going to be the Jewish "answer" to Christmas.

Fortunately, there is an obscure connection between Hanukkah and Sukkot. So I can end this rumination on a positive note that looks forward to the resolution of all difficulties.

The connection is both historical and spiritual. The historical connection revolves around the origins of Hanukkah. Why is Hanukkah an eight-day festival? Eight is a strange number, rarely cropping up in Jewish contexts; our preferred number for holidays is seven. The Sabbath comes around every seven days; Passover lasts seven days; after Passover are seven weeks of the counting of the Omer until Pentecost; and Sukkot is seven days. Why is Hanukkah eight days?

"Eight" in a Jewish context frequently means "seven plus one." And, interestingly enough, there is a festival that is "seven plus one" days: Sukkot is followed immediately by Shemini Atzeret ("Eighth Day of Assembly" or "Conclusive Eighth Day"), a holiday that along with Sukkot is part of the "Season of Joy" but that is a distinct holiday in its own right. Outside the Land of Israel, the major holidays (other than the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement) are doubled; thus we have two Passover Seders and two days of Pentecost where in the Land of Israel there is only one Seder and one day of Pentecost. Shemini Atzeret is likewise doubled, but also split; the holiday is not only the conclusion to the Sukkot season but also the conclusion of the cycle of reading the complete text of the Pentateuch over the course of a year, and in the Diaspora the two aspects of the holiday are split into two days: Shemini Atzeret and then Simchat Torah ("Rejoicing in the Torah"), and most Americans, if they have heard of either, have only heard of the latter.

So Sukkot plus Shemini Atzeret is an eight-day festival. And the fact that Hanukkah is the only other eight-day holiday is probably not a coincidence. The Sukkot holiday was probably not celebrated on time as a consequence of the Hasmonean rebellion and the defilement of the Temple, and some historians think it is likely that the first Hanukkah was a belated celebration of Sukkot, out of season; and the original miracle of Hanukkah the fact that the rains came even though Sukkot was celebrated belatedly (among other things, Sukkot, like Passover and Pentecost, is an agricultural festival, and includes a prayer for rain).

But there is a more profound spiritual connection. Each of the minor holidays in Judaism - Purim, Hanukkah and the Ninth of Av - has a spiritual connection with a major festival. Passover is connected to Purim, both directly and ironically. (Directly: both celebrate liberation from a tyrant; ironically: in Passover the Divine manifests His power by intervening overtly and blatantly in history, while in Purim the Divine is hidden, and His hand can only be discerned after the fact.) Shavuot (Pentecost) is connected to the Ninth of Av, but only ironically. (Pentecost recalls receiving God's Torah at God's Mountain, Sinai, while the Ninth of Av mourns the destruction of God's Temple at God's other Mountain, Moriah. Moreover, the sin of the Golden Calf, which takes place at Sinai, is traditionally said to have taken place on the Ninth of Av. And there is a midrash which interprets the phrase that the Israelites stood "under the mountain" to mean that God held the mountain over their heads, saying, "if you do not accept the Law, then this mountain will be your grave." There are a number of suggestive connections between the theophany at Sinai and the "negative theophany" of the destruction of the Temple.) And Sukkot is connected with Hanukkah, directly. Hanukkah is a celebration of the rededication of the Temple. While this took place in "historic time" it echoes the hope of a rebuilding that takes place outside of or at the end of historic time, the hope that predominates on Sukkot. Hanukkah, rather than being mildly disparaged (as it appears to have been by the rabbis) for being a human-centered holiday, can be exalted as a human pre-enactment of an anticipated Divine action.

Perhaps, then, there is a better way for me, and for other Jews, to approach Hanukkah. Rather than fret about the proximity to Christmas, and react by trying either to downplay Christmas or to copy it or simply to move in on its "turf," we should educate ourselves and other people about Hanukkah's spiritual and historical connection with the Jewish holiday that is most consonant with the spirit of Christmas. Perhaps, by connecting it with Sukkot, we'll be able to get away from the material distractions of the season and discover the "true spirit" of Hanukkah, as so many believing Christians are always trying to find their way back to the "true spirit" of Christmas.

Or, if that doesn't work, just make a lot of good food and share it around. That always goes down well.

In any event, Merry a-week-until Christmas everyone. And good Shabbos.