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 . . . . .
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.