Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hanukkah and Christmas

The proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas gives it a special place in the yearly calendar for American Jews, one fraught with opposing pressures and ambivalent sentiments. On the one hand Hanukkah is a joyous festival and an opportunity to participate in the spirit of the all-consuming "holiday season." On the other hand, that very impulse raises guilty feelings of assimilation, imitative consumerism, and diluted Jewish identity. While Christians (or some of them) fret about the secularization of Christmas, Jews are prone to fret about the "Christmasization" of Hanukkah. This anxiety is exemplified by Rabbi Wayne Dosick, who in his text Living Judaism insists, "Chanukah and Christmas have nothing in common, other than they are celebrated at the same time of year. Chanukah does not need to be compared to any other religious observance or celebrated in any out-of-proportion way (p. 154)." Similarly, in a recent piece in the New York Times, Hilary Krieger laments that because Hanukkah has "morphed into 'Christmas for Jews,'" the holiday has been sanitized of all its associations with conflict and "Jewish survival."

Any genuinely historical perspective on comparative religion, however, must acknowledge that the Hanukkah and Christmas festivals are intimately linked- instances of "spiritual mirroring" across a sectarian boundary that has often been more porous than many adherents on either side would allow. If today Hanukkah has become "Christmas for Jews," in earlier times Christmas was undoubtedly "Hanukkah for Christians." This may seem absurd- what can the commemoration of a child's birth have to do with a story of bloodshed and war? Yet this perceived asymmetry is an anachronism born of our modern sensibilities.

To Judeans of the classical era the Hanukkah and Christmas stories were structurally parallel. The story of the Maccabees ends with the revival of Jewish kingship- the reemergence of an independent Jewish throne for the first time since the Babylonian exile. It was this miracle that the Hanukkah festival commemorated centuries before anyone recorded the story of the lamp and the oil familiar to us today. The story of Christmas, similarly, ends with the appearance of a new King of Israel. The visit of the Magi to the manger with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is a scene of coronation. The placing of the Christmas holiday in close proximity to Hanukkah reinforced the dynastic themes of Christ's messianic status. Jesus was the natural extension of the Maccabees, the man who would fulfill Jewish hopes in a more absolute and permanent manner.

Here, one might argue, the similarity ends. If Christ was a King, he was one in a very different mold than Judah Maccabee. He raised no army, drove out no conquerors, and ended condemned on a cross. Yet at this juncture we may perceive that the "Christmasization" of Hanukkah began long before anyone sat a child on Santa's lap. For if Christmas radically de-emphasizes the political and military aspects of Christ's "kingship," over time Hanukkah similarly turned away from triumphalism toward more exclusively spiritual themes. The Talmud makes no mention of Hanukkah except in connection to the miracle of the oil, transmuting the holiday from a celebration of human victory into a commemoration of a divine wonder. Hanukkah became, over time, the "Festival of Lights," just as Jesus, as messiah, was epitomized as "The Light of the World." Both Christmas and Hanukkah evolved to commonly turn the worshiper away from kingship understood in terms of blood and iron and toward a contemplation of light, that immaterial substance most evocative of the Transcendent.

It might be tempting to conclude that both Hanukkah and Christmas convey a deliberate and inspirational message of peace, but a more pragmatic reading of the holidays' parallel histories suggests itself. Jews were compelled, in diaspora, to relinquish the dynastic hopes embodied in the Hanukkah festival. If the continuity of Judaism had required the revival of Jewish political institutions the community would have perished, thus survival necessitated finding a more spiritual foundation upon which to build an enduring Jewish identity. Similarly, in their early days Christians were faced with a Roman authority they could not hope to contest militarily. The practicability of Jesus' salvational message thus hinged on finding some way to distinguish Christ as "king" from the Caesars with whom he could not materially contend. Christmas and Hanukkah evolved toward one-another because both Jews and Christians needed to distinguish between the power inherent in Light and the power inherent in Iron.

This historical reading, though less romantic, may be edifying for us today in its own way.  The story of Hanukkah's and Christmas's parallel evolution conveys a lesson about religious life that certainly applies to our own time. When as human beings we seek spiritual fulfillment in concrete, material achievements- the building (or destruction) of a particular edifice, the enforcement of particular rules, the ascendancy of a particular lineage- the effect is generally ephemeral and oftentimes tragic. When, however, we locate spiritual realization in more abstract and universal realms- light, harmony, peace- the effects are generally more enduring and more consistently positive. In a world embroiled by bloody disputes over sacred boundaries and sectarian divisions, we might pause to draw a lesson from our collective past.

[This post was inspired by discussions in a class on Judaism at Congregation B'nai Israel (Rumson, New Jersey), led by Rabbi Jeff Sultar. The opinions and errors, however, are exclusively my own]


Harry Hochheiser said...

Interesting, Andy. I found the Times piece fascinating in its mention of forced conversion by the Jews. Do you know anything about this part of he story? I don't. Another parallel with the Christians, perhaps?

Madman of Chu said...

Thanks, Harry. The Maccabees didn't forcibly convert non-Jews, though they did coerce Jews to turn away from Hellenism toward a more fundamentalist Jewish practice. The later Hasmonean monarchs did convert non-Jews within and on the frontiers of Judea, as reported by Josephus.