It's a sticky wicket, this one . . . on the one hand, our tradition teaches us that an integral part of our celebration of Hanukah should be "pirsumei nisa" an Aramaic phrase (most rabbinic literature is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew) which means "publicizing the miracle.
On the other hand, it is the principle of "the separation of religion and state" that has made the United States the multi-faith and multi-cultural haven that it is.
On yet another hand, for all that there is no institution of state religion here in the United States, there is certainly a presumption of a cultural religion . . . let us count the ways this is a Christian country.
Let's take a look at all the "hands."
Pirsumei Nisa / Publicizing the Miracle
This principle, generated in the Talmud, establishes the practice of lighting the Hanukah menorah in a window, doorway or entrance to a courtyard in order that anyone passing through the public thoroughfare will see the lit menorah and be reminded of the miracle of Hanukah with which God blessed the people of Israel. Great importance is attached to this practice in the view of the sages of the Talmud: should one need to make a choice . . . due to limited personal funds . . . between buying wine for Shabbat kiddush or oil for lighting the menorah we are instructed to purchase the oil for the Hanukah menorah because it is a greater mitzvah to publicize God's miracle than to sanctify the day in private!
No Established Religion in the United States
The founding ideologues of The United States embodied their rejection of the status of the Anglican Church in the text of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
This isn't exactly the "separation of church and state" principle that we speak of most frequently, but we do clearly see established in this amendment the principle that there will be no state religion or state church in the United States. Furthermore, every faith community is guaranteed, through this amendment, the free exercise of their religion.
In the context of the December holidays, then, we could say that the "correction" to lighting a Christmas tree on a City Hall lawn (or a Statehouse Rotunda) would be the lighting of a Hanukah menorah. If both Christianity and Judaism are acknowledged through official civic celebrations, then there is no transgression of the First Amendment because equal acknowledgement of both faiths means that no one faith is given official precedence.
Of course, Islam, Buddhism, Universalist Unitarian, Hinduism and lots of other religions aren't recognized at all in this dance, but that's another blog for another day.
The United States is culturally a Christian country
So, if there is no official state religion, why do municipalities, state governments and even presidents of the United States light Christmas trees? (Search the keyword Hanukah on this blog page for my take on the "Holiday Tree" issue). I think it's because the United States is culturally a Christian country. Given the choice between not lighting a Christmas tree or lighting a Christmas tree and a Hanukah menorah, the overwhelming majority of American citizens and American elected officials prefer to light both . . . because it would be intolerable to light none. Even though there is no official state religion in this country.
Back to Pirsumei Nisa
So why object to the lighting of a Hanukah menorah in public places? Is that not the practice established by the talmudic sages when they discussed Pirsumei Nisa?
I don't think so.
When I place my Hanukah menorah in the window of my livingroom and light my Hanukah candles for anyone on Roger Williams Circle to see, I am declaring that in this house the Hanukah miracle is treasured, is a source of pride, is a meaningful reminder of Jewish identity, is a declaration of the power of God's light during dark days. That is the intent of Pirsumei Nisa.
When a Hanukah menorah is lit on public property, local, state and government officials are declaring, "We are inclusive here. We celebrate our minorities."
A quintessentially Jewish object and act is redefined in civic terms at that moment of public menorah-lighting.
I prefer the Jewish values associated with the Hanukah menorah in my window.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.