The Ḥanukah dilemma and the reflection of doctrine in secular life

Andy Oram
13 December 1999

O Mattathias, founder of the Maccabees! While you saved monotheism from oblivion, what a burden you placed on all your descendants!

Every year in this season, my friends’ talk turns to the dilemma of celebrating Ḥanukah in a culture supersaturated with Christmas imagery (along with the tendency to spell Ḥanukah with a plain H because there’s no convenient way to represent the initial guttural sound). We tend to think of it as simply a Jewish problem. If we raise our eyes a bit, we see it as a Christian’s problem too, but only in terms of their appreciating that Jews are different. But today I realized it is an underlying problem in American life; it is the inability of people who to understand their faith as faith, whatever it may be, and thus to profess faith within a secular society. A symptom of this limitation is what Jews might call the Ḥanukah dilemma, but which should be seen broadly as the reflection of doctrine in secular life.

Let me put down here my view: there is a Ḥanukah problem in 20th- (and 21st-) century America, it is a Christian problem as well as a Jewish problem, and it is solvable—but only with a great deal of effort.

First let me describe the many layers of the Ḥanukah problem. Non-Jewish readers may not see the reason to slog through the description, but they should do so anyway. Everyone must fully understand the dilemma before talking in a reasonable way about its solution.

The prudent keep silent in such a time

Through the many decades when it was standard to open each day in American public schools with The Lord’s Prayer, the carols and creches of the Christmas season were probably the least of impositions schools placed on non-Christians. But after the Abington School District prayer case of 1963 and the broader Lemon case of 1971, prayer was effectively cut out and the month of December is the one remaining bastion of Christian doctrine in the schools. (Aside from attempts in conservative areas to put prayer in graduations or sporting events.) This is something Jews should remember: the Ḥanukah dilemma seems to loom as a high ridge nowadays because the rest of the ground has retreated so much around it.

That was an age of simplicity. Many Christians barely knew anything about Jews beyond the name. If it was pointed out to Christian children that Jews didn’t celebrate Christmas, about the most propitious attitude one could expect was, “Those unfortunate Jewish kids! They don’t get to have fun and open presents!” It’s well-known that the Jewish kids often had natural feelings of deprivation, too, but that is not enough to explain the abnormal growth of Ḥanukah’s importance.

In itself it wouldn’t be so bad, the perception that where there was no Christmas celebration there was nothing. But viewpoints may not be so benign. Jews usually suffer little more than discomfort over the Christmas season in modern America, where problems tend to remain at the level of awkwardness or sincere confusion over beliefs and practices. But there is a more pervasive legacy from the days when people saw perversity, immorality, and treason in the mere choice to abstain from worshiping Jesus. Such thinking makes it too easy to polarize society.

By blaming all sorts of things from poverty to addictive behavior on the failure to follow a well-trodden path of doctrine and ritual practice, a large number of Americans stop searching for alternative explanations that have more chance of leading to solutions. For instance, policies that treat heroin addiction as a moral problem are less likely to reduce addiction than policies that treat it as a medical problem.

I am certainly not in a place to tell anyone what to believe or what beliefs truly constitute any particular religion, but I feel justified in pointing out the consequences of certain patterns of thinking. Among their victims are Jews in America. No wonder both Jews and tolerant Christians have made it their job to show that Jews indeed have something righteous and respectable of their own!

They shall not preach of these things

Thus the tradition of making menorahs to hang on Christmas trees and of including one or two Ḥanukah songs in Christmas concerts. This accommodation is very important to many Jewish children, because at a stage of relatively concrete thinking it is important to have one’s heritage acknowledged in practice; my own child has told me that the more mentions of Ḥanukah there are during Christmas season, the better it feels.

But tokenism is never satisfying for long. Jews justifiably suspect that adding “I Have a Little Dreidel” (or a poem about Kwanzaa, or a traditional Japanese song, or any number of other nods toward diversity) simply provides a fig leaf for continuing to celebrate a Christian holiday in the schools. Almost any special event that an American school schedules in late December is going to be interpreted as a Christmas celebration. After all, didn’t Christmas absorb such pagan fixtures as trees and winter-solstice lights, without losing its Christian character? It’s nice for schools to have special programs to end the semester, but it also takes an enormous amount of effort to keep them strictly secular.

The mouths of fools pour out foolishness

No salvation lies in making Ḥanukah a bigger part of school events, even were schools to spend an equal amount of time on it as they do Christmas. The reason is that Ḥanukah is a minor holiday with minimal religious significance. (It was hard for the Maccabees to persuade Jews outside Israel to accept it as a holiday at all. In modern Israel, it has regained a good deal of importance because the Israelis link it to their struggle for nationhood, but this connection is rather weak and abstract for American Jews.) Thus, any mention of Ḥanukah in the context of celebrating Christmas, whether it be a single Jewish star on the wall or a lavish Ḥanukah pageant, turns Ḥanukah into the Jewish Christmas, and Jews by extension into Christians who just happen to do it their own funny way.

When people say “Happy Ḥanukah” to Jews at work or on radio and TV broadcasts, many of us wonder why they do not wish us an easy fast before Yom Kippur, or ask how many people we are inviting to our seders as Passover approaches. (Not that it’s really to be expected. The questions could well have been embarrassing to me some years ago, when I neither fasted nor participated in seders. And can I even remember the last time I talked to a Catholic about what he or she was giving up for Lent?)

Of course, I am making sport here, because the words “Happy Ḥanukah” have no more religious meaning than “Merry Christmas” do nowadays. In the mouths of the average receptionist, store clerk, dentist, or bar-stool companion, “Merry Christmas” doesn’t mean “Rejoice in your salvation through the grace of God who descended to earth and took on human form to die for our sins.” It just means, “I wish you well, stay warm this winter, let’s all be a little nicer to one another.” An invocation of Ḥanukah cannot have the same meaning, though, to anyone who understands the history it invokes of military strife and national self-assertion. Certainly I appreciate the desire to be polite, and I sometimes say “Merry Christmas” myself to friends whom I know will appreciate the gesture. But if Christians really want to acknowledge the importance of Jews’ religion to us, it should not be done once a year at a time that happens to fall on the holiday considered (not theologically, but by many Christians emotionally) to be their most important religious holiday. I will pick up this theme later in my section on solutions.

And if Jews complain about not being acknowledged at Christmas time, I feel like asking them whether they know when Ramadan started (this year, it was about four days ago) or what day the Chinese New Year falls on. Religious inclusivity is an expensive proposition! I think it overly ambitious to expect that everybody will understand everybody else’s values and practices.

The end of the matter, after all is heard

So we cannot expect all residents of our society to understand their neighbors’ doctrines. We can ask, though, that each person understand his or her own doctrines. That means seeing the doctrines as separate from the mores that hold society together.

If we are to take the First Amendment seriously, we must cut out all religious observances in public places. The fanatics who insist on promoting their religious doctrines in public fora are few; our real problem is with those who don’t understand their religious doctrines as such. The weasling of the Supreme Court, in continually allowing more and more overt Christian practices at school events and town properties over the past few decades, is no help. It absolves people from making the necessary struggle to understand the roots of their own values, and to distinguish religious from secular practice.

Thus, there is another part to solution (and one that has often been proposed): the schools need to teach the doctrines of popular religions around the world. They need to be taught in a secular manner, as one would teach such uncontroversial topics as Huckleberry Finn or the theory of evolution. What, you find these controversial? All the more evidence that it is both possible and necessary to tackle the problem of religion in secular courses too. And it can even be done while inviting representatives of various religious traditions to lecture in the schools.

But how can schools satisfy people who have strong reactions for or against a religion? How can they deal with these intense emotions in a 30-minute period squeezed between practicing penmanship and solving improper fractions? What happens when someone presents a particular historical view of Christian or Jewish doctrine, only to have vituperative parents come in the next day to say, “That’s not what my religion means at all!”

The answer is that schools must be supplemented by the work of private religious institutions. And these religious institutions must teach their congregants to understand the historical roots of their beliefs and practices. People must see how certain values, such as restraint in sexual behavior, are based in religious traditions. Then, as they enter the larger society, they will be ready to learn that there are many different traditions, each possessing validity for its adherents, and furthermore—most important of all to preserving social peace—that there is a difference between religious traditions and the secular traditions that hold a society together.

Jews have some recognition of this subtle understanding; ancient rabbis recognized a distinction between “Noahide commandments” that all peoples should obey, such as respect for life, and particular laws that only Jews need obey. Perhaps other religious traditions have similar understandings. The ancient Jewish commentators didn’t agree on exactly what ethical basics should be considered Noahide commandments, so we too can define the values needed for American public life in a manner suited to our modern society; there is no reason to lean on a putative “Judeo-Christian tradition.”

But a frightening number of modern Americans have mixed up personal and public values. All too often they say that one cannot have safe and constructive schools without teaching moral values (a proposition open to question from a sociological and psychological standpoint); another step down the slippery slope leads them to declare that one cannot impart effective values without directly teaching doctrines from their particular religion. I have heard both leading presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, say as much. It must be a shockingly common perception. It’s what I called, in the title, the reflection of doctrine in secular life.

Then there are other barriers, even among the well-meaning who want to separate the religious from the secular. For instance, teachers have to be trained in various religious traditions, and taught how to describe them in a way that minimizes offense (but not eliminate it, because as I have suggested one always finds people who will be offended). Much easier to leave things as they are and let schools impose Christmas decorations on their pupils!

So I plan to live with the Ḥanukah dilemma for a few more decades. But I also have my Jewish tradition, and as I personally understand that tradition, it does not permit one to let injustice reign without speaking. This essay is my attempt to contribute to that tradition.

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