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.
By this time next week, we will be deep into Hanukah and those of Christian faith will be just a day or so away from Christmas. Because our Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar and the secular/Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, these two holidays coincide occasionally, but more often are separated by a few days or weeks.
Were you to look up Hanukah in a book about Jewish holidays, you'd see that Hanukah is categorized as a "Minor Festival." This status is largely due to the festival's post-biblical roots. The historical events of the Maccabean revolt (166 BCE) took place after the five books of the Torah were already canonized. In the Jewish world, that which is Torah-based is of greater weight and significance than that which follows . . . hence Hanukah is "minor" while Sukkot, for example is "major."
But the themes of Hanukah are not really "minor" at all:
Hanukah inspires us to take pride in our Jewish heritage and to dedicate ourselves to forging durable Jewish identities in a multicultural setting.
During the week of Hanukah, during the part of the year in which the days are the shortest, we bring more and more light into the world by lighting an increasing number of candles each night. Light is a symbol of God's presence . . . and this practice of lighting an increasing number of candles is a ritual of optimism and faith, an expression of our conviction that the darkness will relent through our partnership with God.
The engaging story of the Hanukah miracle of the oil reminds us that miracles can be perceived in the mundane, if we are only open to perceiving them.
But there's no foliage involved in Hanukah.
We American Jews are blessed to be living in a country where the culture and values we share with our non-Jewish neighbors promote mutual respect and inclusivity. The official dubbing of that huge evergreen in the State House as a "holiday tree" is kind of sweet and certainly well-intentioned, but rather misguided.
I suffer from no foliage-envy. I am sated by the richness of our Hanukah traditions and am happy for my Christian friends and neighbors that this stark season is enlivened for them by the richness of Christmas traditions as well.
I have to admit to a twinge of resentment . . . as if, non-foliage-blessed person that I am, I am being co-opted into identifying with an iconic symbol that is only meaningful to others.
So, please, call it a Christmas tree . . . that's what it is. It's beautiful and fun and festive . . . and Christian.
Now, where did I put those Hanukah candles . . . . .
Shabbat Hanukah 5771 Parashat Miketz Torah Reading: Genesis 41:1-44:17
Parashat Miketz is often the Torah reading for the Shabbat of Hanukah. In his rich and insightful book, The Everyday Torah, Rabbi Brad Artson characterizes the the themes of the Torah reading and the themes of Hanukah as "Dedication, Transformation, and Cleansing." He writes: "The miracle of the human capacity to refocus, to begin anew, to reconsecrate our deeds to a path of mindful compassion is a cause for wonder and real celebration...."
This week, we celebrate the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by Hellenistic Seleucid invading forces in 165 b.c.e. Everything within the precincts of the Temple grounds was cleaned and rededicated to the exclusive service of the God of Israel. Rabbi Artson encourages us to internalize that dynamic of cleansing and transformation so that we may dedicate our resources, our priorities and our actions to mindful compassion.
I am so engaged by Rabbi Artson's phrase, "mindful compassion." Among the meanings and associations that come to my mind is the principle that help is really only help when we understand the needs of the person we are helping. Mindful compassion compels us to enter into the world of the person we are encountering, and to offer them resources that will address their own perceived needs, not the resources that will bring them closer to a goal that we think they should aspire to.
There are also moments when mindful compassion pushes us to forgo intellectual exercises and simply act to relieve acute suffering.
This Hanukah, this season of re-dedication, well over 200 Rhode Islanders are facing the appalling reality of sleeping under bridges. There are enough shelter beds in Rhode Island to provide a warm, clean, dry place to sleep for just about everyone in need, but the state lacks the funds to open, heat and staff those shelters.
For this reason, the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis have come together to organize "A Call for Compassion During Hanukah," our communal response to the crying need in our state.
There is a collection box in the lobby at Torat Yisrael, and there will be one at my Open House this Sunday afternoon, as well as Sunday morning at the Cohen School. You may donate cash or a check to this emergency appeal. Checks can be made out to: Rhode Island Board of Rabbis with "emergency shelter fund" on the notation line.
You can also donate online directly to the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless at www.rihomeless.org
Mindful compassion also compels us to use our imaginations to understand the realities of someone else's life. Please be generous.
Shabbat Hanukah I
This evening the festival of Hanukah begins. Hanukah is one of our most vivid holidays: candles, menorahs, dreidles, songs, latkes, an engaging story of heroism, it's just about perfect!
One of the things I appreciate most about this holiday is its name: like almost every Hebrew word, "Hanukah" is built on a three letter root. In this case the letters are "het, nun, chaf" or, reading from right to left:
ח נ כ
Other words built on this same three-letter root include: "dedication," "education," "consecration" and "apprenticeship." When we move into a new home our "house-warming party" takes on additional significance when we hang a mezuzah on our doorpost (something I love doing, give me a call if you're moving!!). Now a simple house-warming becomes a "Hanukah Bayit" / a consecration of our new home.
Hebrew links the concepts of dedication and education in a way that would never occur to us in English: It is through education (hinuch) that we learn the value of dedication to our collective identity. It is through the consecration of our homes that our family lives unfold in sacred space and in that consecrated space we learn to dedicate ourselves to our loved ones. There is a lot of depth to the etymological connection created by these three Hebrew letters.
I hope you will have the opportunity to share Hanukah candle lighting with family and friends this week (you'll find the words and melodies for the blessings and some Hanukah songs at: www.toratyisrael.org/hanukah.html). And as you gaze into the mesmerizing little flames of those candles, I hope you will find inspiration to renew your dedication to and education in the beauties of our tradition.
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.