No one alive today has ever experienced celebrating Chanukah and Thanksgiving on the same day, and this convergence is so rare that it won’t be until long after our great-great grandchildren are born that it will happen again.
Many Jews, rabbis included, have rushed to point out the thematic similarities between Chanukah and Thanksgiving; both holidays celebrate the struggle for religious freedom, both see Divine Providence at work in history, both have a strong focus on family, and most of all, both highlight the idea of gratitude.
To all this, I say, bah-humbug.
Don’t get me wrong, our family’s turkey dinner is second to none, and we absolutely love everything about Chanukah. However, the attempt to blend the two in any way other than on the Gregorian calendar, obliterates the meaning of both, though Chanukah most of all. Here’s why:
A key theme in Chanukah, though one that is less known than others, is lehodot, “to give thanks.” Obviously, giving thanks is central to Thanksgiving. However, with both days, we’re not just talking about generic, amorphous gratitude, rather a very specific and focused gratitude. Thanksgiving is about beating grateful for being an American, and not British, Mexican, Turkish or Dutch. Chanukah too is quite ethnocentric. It’s about being grateful for being Jewish, and not Russian, Moroccan, American, or Greek.
Thanksgivukkah may tempt us to serve sweet potato latkes alongside our cranberry sauce, or to craft turkey shaped menorahs, but the truth is that both holidays are far more particular than universal.
Recently, Presidents Obama and Putin went toe-to-toe over the notion of American exceptionalism. Their disagreement should not only give Americans something to think about this Thanksgiving, but is also a perfect way to understand the exceptionalism of the Jewish people that is manifest in the holiday of Chanukah.
In a recent address to the country Obama said, “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” Putin, in a New York Times op-ed piece, took umbrage with Obama’s words. Then, in response to Putin, Obama stood at the UN rostrum and declared that, “Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional.” Indeed, come Thanksgiving, that is exactly what Americans celebrate and give thanks for.
In the same vein, I don’t see anything wrong with seeing the Jewish people as exceptional, and celebrating just that on Chanukah. The fact is, the assertion of Jewish exceptionalism was at the heart of the conflict between the Greeks and the Jews. Hellenism was the dominant culture of it’s time. The Greeks wanted the Jews to drop their belief in Jewish exceptionalism and to adopt Greek values and mores. While the Greek way of life was tempting to many, ultimately the Jews resisted.
Today, many Jews don’t appreciate what it is that makes us special and exceptional. Certainly, many feel uncomfortable with being – shhhhh, don’ say it too loudly – different.
Well, the following is a brief look at what Jewish specialness and exceptionalism are, and hopefully, this will give us all something to reflect on, and be thankful for, this Chanukah.
The essence of Jewish peoplehood is that we have been tasked with being nothing less than a “light unto the nations.” That’s right, the Jewish people has a seminal role to play on the stage of human history. How’s that for different? What is unique and special about the Jewish people, at least from the Jewish perspective, is that we bear an exceptional level of responsibility to make the world a morally and spiritually better place. And, as we will see, we’ve had some success along the way. It is important to note, however, that our collective mission is no guarantee of individual behavior. Jews, like all people, are perfectly capable of being corrupt, dishonest and depraved.
Being exceptional doesn’t mean that Jews are first class citizens in God’s world and everyone else flies coach; and it certainly doesn’t mean that any and every human life isn’t precious in the eyes of God, and shouldn’t be precious in the eyes of all men. The notion that “all men are created equal,” the very idea that stands as the great cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence, is, after all, a history-changing idea that originated with the Jewish people.
Consider the following from three prominent non-Jewish historians:
The Jews started it all—and by “it” I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings … we would think with a different mind. And we would set a different course for our lives.
—Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews
It is almost beyond our capacity to imagine how the world would have fared if they had never emerged. The world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, sanctity of life, dignity of the human person, social responsibility, peace as an ideal, and many other items that constitute the basic furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.
–Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews
They (the Jews) were the first people to arrive at an abstract notion of God. No people has produced a greater historical impact from such comparatively insignificant origins and resources.
— J.M. Roberts, History of the World
These observations, and they are just a sample of many others, are testimony to the fact that the Jewish people has had some success in it’s exceptional task of being an enlightening force on the stage of human history. Do our unique and remarkable contributions to humanity make us more worthy of life, liberty, respect, or dignity than anyone else? Of course not. At the same time, yes, the Jewish people is exceptional. And, part of our exceptionalism is that we will always believe in and work for the day when all of humanity will rise to the great challenge of one of the most revolutionary Jewish ideas in all of human history. Actually, it’s the idea that is at the heart of what the United Nations is supposed to be all about: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they study war anymore.”
As we approach Chanukah, let’s not be tempted to blur our exceptionalism, rather, let’s take it to heart, strive to rise to the challenge it presents us with, and be grateful for who we are.
So, come Thanksgiving, I’ll say, pass the stuffing. And on Chanukah it will be, pass me another latke. As for Thanksgivukkah? I’ll take a pass.