December 12, 2009
Tonight is the second night of Chanukah. It's really a minor Jewish festival, nowhere near as important as Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, Passover, Sukkot or Shavu'ot. Shabbat, which we celebrate every week, is most important.
And yet Chanukah, the Jewish winter solstice festival, has taken on supreme importance in America only because it falls close to Christmas.
In our house, where there are no children to worry about comparing our holiday to a Christian holiday, Chanukah has limited scope. We light the Chanukah menorah every night. I make foods cooked with oil to remember the miracle of the oil lamp. We gather with friends on one or two of the evenings. But we don't exchange gifts and we don't set up decorations.
Instead I prefer to remember that Chanukah recalls the persecution of a minority group by the majority culture on religious grounds. Antiochus and his Hellenistic government harassed the Jews for their religious practices and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews, under the Hasmonean leaders (Judah the "Hammer" Maccabee), fought back and were able to restore their right to worship as they please. They rededicated the Temple, hence the miracle of the lights and our custom of lighting a candelabra.
This is a more significant message for Americans to remember: that in a free country, all should be able to worship freely. So whether you celebrate Chanukah or Christmas, Diwali or Kwanzaa, in the spirit of America's founding fathers, who promised freedom of religion to all, please remember that the person you wish a merry Xmas to may not celebrate the same holiday.