Remarks delivered December 13, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
at the Catholic-Jewish Hanukkah Commemoration at San Fernando Cathedral
Some folks incorrectly imagine that they may safely speak derisively about Christianity around Rabbis. They are wrong. Nevertheless, at this time of year, some unsuspecting person will inevitably harangue me about the allegedly Pagan characteristics of Christmas. Whether made by a triumphalist Jew or by a disaffected Christian, the claim will be that Christmas, and especially a number of its symbols, were adopted from Pagan practice, and are not nearly so spiritually elevated and original as Jewish holy days and their symbols.
Invariably, my first response is to remind the person that many aspects of Jewish celebration have Pagan origins. For example, on Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, a harvest festival, Jews take four species of the agricultural produce of ancient Israel, hold them together, and wave them in every direction. This particular symbol, called a lulav, appears quite phallic, and the way it is put together recalls the basic human sex act. One can well imagine the meaning to our Pagan predecessors, calling upon the gods to bring fertility to the Earth, in every direction, from every divine source.
Nevertheless, for thousands of years, Jews have waved the lulav to worship the one God of heaven and Earth, to thank the Lord for the blessings that we receive, and to demonstrate our faith that God is everywhere. Scripture ordains that we utilize these species to praise God thusly. Ultimately, then, the Pagan origin of the observance becomes irrelevant. The lulav has deep, sacred, Jewish meaning.
Surely, the same is true of Hanukkah, no doubt preceded by Pagan rites for the Winter Solstice. Very likely, the kindling of lights in this darkest of months hearkens back to some pre-Israelite attempt to distract the demons of the darkness.
Indeed, the Rabbis of the Talmud, written almost seven hundred years after the Hanukkah event itself, question each other about the meaning of the festival and its lights. They tell of a small jug of oil, found in the Temple after the Maccabean victory, sufficient to kindle the Eternal Light for only one day. A four-day journey, in each direction, would be required to obtain additional oil, appropriately pure and sanctified, a devastating problem, met by a great miracle: the light burned for eight days.
That story is not found in the Books of Maccabees, which is part of the Catholic canon, but not in Jewish Scriptures. The Books of Maccabees, written within a century of the events they purport to recount, tell us a different and less miraculous story of the first Hanukkah. We learn that, while fighting the battle, the Maccabees had been unable to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot. Therefore, when they were victorious, and the Temple had been cleansed, the Jews celebrated Sukkot, albeit delayed, to beseech God for a good year of crops.
So what is the real reason for the eight candles? Do we light them, because our Pagan predecessors celebrated light at this dark season? Do Jews kindle lights this week to celebrate the miracle of the oil? Or do we light eight candles to represent the eight days of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which had to be celebrated that year by the light of fire, because it was delayed into a much later month?
On one level, the answer is “yes;” all three factors contribute to our modern practice. And yet, if you ask most Jews, they can only tell you the story of the miracle of the oil, which is the “official” Jewish answer, after all. From time immemorial, Jews have celebrated Hanukkah, mindful of God’s grace, granting light to a people very much in need of a sign from God. Thus do we praise God, with the second blessing for the candle lighting on each night of Hanukkah, proclaiming that God “performed miracles for our ancestors, at this season, in days of yore.”
Jews find deep religious messages in Hanukkah, even though it is a relatively minor holiday in our tradition. To be sure, Christians find even greater meaning in Christmas, one of your most sacred celebrations. The possible Pagan origins of some of the observances of either holiday are no longer relevant, except in terms of historical and academic interest. Hanukkah is a very Jewish religious observance. Christmas is a sacred Christian holy day.
Pagan threat to both of our holidays comes not from their histories, but from the ways they are observed in popular culture. Today, the sacred meanings of both holidays risk being lost, as spirituality vies with materialism for our attention at this season. I can not tell you how many people, almost all of them nominal Christians, will tell me that Christmas is an entirely secular, cultural, family celebration. What that means is that families and communities gather, admittedly a sacred endeavor in itself, but the activities in which they engage are primarily gluttony and greed, Pagan endeavors, even in 2004.
Catholic and Jewish leaders of today need not worry that our respective people will bow down to the Pagan gods whose worship might have inspired some of our sacred symbols. Instead, we must be concerned with the real idolatry of the 21st Century, as it is expressed at this season. We perform acts of kindness for one month, and then ignore the needy for the bulk of the year. We shower our children with material goods, instead of our love and attention. Captains of industry multiply their own earnings, at the expense of their workers, and then assuage their employees, who permit themselves to be satisfied, with a lavish Christmas party.
I could go on, of course. The examples are unfamiliar to none of us.
Let us all see the light of religious meaning in both of our faiths’ winter festivals, whatever the origins of each particular symbol and observance. Let us keep the light burning, not just for eight days or for a month, but throughout the year, every year. Let no idolatry dissuade us from our religious mission, to bring light where there is darkness, at this season, in every season. And may the one God of us all be our Partner, shedding divine light on a terribly dark world.