The holiday season goes beyond the theology of what Christmas represents, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It also transcends Hanukkah, which retells the fight for religious freedom the Jewish people waged against the regime of the Seleucid Hellenist empire, which ransacked the Holy Temple and forbid the practice of Judaism in 165BCE.
All of these holy days possess their unique messages. They both use the themes of light, renewal, dedication, and hope. Yet the winter season offers us opportunities to affirm values that are not theological per se but are important in demonstrating why Americans of different faiths — and even politics — should work together.
My wife and I recent visited Baltimore where we attended a Hanukkah party given by the state’s governor at his official residence in Annapolis. The stately manor was filled with beautiful Christmas ornaments and a marvelously decorated tree. At the same time, over 200 Jewish activists, including rabbis, came together at the invitation of Gov. Larry Hogan, an Irish Catholic, to celebrate Hanukkah. There were all the favorite Jewish foods and a Jewish band playing, and the rabbis and other honored guests socialized around the Christmas decorations. We lit the Hanukkah menorah and listened to the governor tell his story of a recent trade mission trip to Israel.
I rejoiced to see how one governor’s house could embrace both religious traditions. The beauty of America is that we each have our own religious space to practice our faith traditions and yet there are special occasions when we transcend our particularity and reach out to the overarching humanity we all share.
The holidays aren’t a competition between the holy days of Hanukkah and Christmas. Rather, this particular time of the year, when Hanukkah begins its eight-day celebration on the Dec. 24 and Christmas comes the next day, provides an opportunity for both faiths to exude excitement and optimism for the future.
This time of the year is supposed to bring out the best in us. We have the opportunity to soften the partisan political battles between ourselves. We have the opportunity, in just a few short days, to begin a different pathway with our new president and Congress. Whether we are talking about the birth of the Christian Messiah or the Hanukkah story, these holidays tell us to go to the moral high ground. Don’t our prayers and our study of sacred texts in both religions teach us to back off from the bickering and start focusing on ecumenicism. We need it more than ever before. We have American exceptionalism, but where is American ecumenicism?
It comes down to this choice for America: Are we going to build a big tent for all Americans to dwell in? Or are we going to build a Tower of Babel? I’m not saying we should forget the issues that divide us in public policy debates. I am advocating for not forgetting the humanity in our neighbors, especially in those who do not share the same political or religious viewpoints.
If we hold to a build a Tower of Babel mentality in our national ethos, then we do we risk further aggrandizing our skills and not our humanity? If we create a wide tent then are we investing in a longer term harmony and community in America? Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, spoke about how he looked at the world through the lens of his particularity of being a Jew in order to embrace the universality of being a citizen of the world.
Finally, there is one more point about this time of the year. One of the beautiful components of the winter holiday season is how we can fall back on our nuclear family system. We retreat into family and maybe we go to our house of worship and we eat those great meals at home. We may sing songs and tell stories. It is affirming and comforting. But can we celebrate our sacred individuality as families of faith or even families without religious affiliation while not ignoring the poor? Soup kitchens and feeding the hungry is a crucial sacred act for us to engage in, particularly now. Moreover let us not forget that while we love our sense of internal family unity at this time of the year, does it blind us to the suffering of others? Shall we forget the genocide in the Middle East and will we ignore those who, through no fault of their own, suffer the ravages of terrorism?
I hope that whatever our religious tradition, we can work together this season for one value which is summed up in this adage from Rabbi Nahman of Breslov: “The entire world is a narrow bridge and when we cross over the bridge let us not be afraid.”
May I wish all my Christian friends a sacred and meaningful Christmas. To my Jewish friends, I wish a beautiful and joyous Hanukkah.
May God and the will of the American people bestow upon us a warm heart and an accepting spirit for this year’s Hanukkah and Christmas season.
May we all have the courage and determination to make this world a little better in 2017.