Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Illumining the chill of December

December is the most difficult month, not merely because the kids are out of school, not merely because the sun sets so early in the day. For Jews, this month is tough for us because of the prominent Christian holiday which pervades the stores, the radio, the television, and every house on the block.

During the rest of the year, we may encounter the occasional bigotry or ignorance of particular individuals. But our sense of being at home here, of being linked with our neighbors in the endless routine of carpools, sports events, shopping malls, and sunny days connects us in a deep way with the people living next door.

Not so in December, when all of our neighbors’ attention turns to celebrating what they understand to be the birth of Jesus, who they see as God, and which for Jews is just the birthday of a Jewish boy who lived a long time ago, who taught, and who was murdered by the Romans.

Once a year, we feel like outsiders in our own country — bombarded by songs announcing the birth of the “king of Israel,” watching the seasonal eruption of good cheer and kindness (soon forgotten in the drunkenness of New Years), returning home to unlit, treeless houses amidst the stirring colors, smells, and lights of Christmas.

December can be a depressing time to be Jewish.

Yet December also provides evidence for the uncanny sense of the Jewish people to institute whatever it takes to survive as a people, whatever it takes to keep our faith and our heritage strong. December, you see, witnesses the American/Jewish invention of the mega-Hanukkah.

In the Talmudic period, Hanukkah was a minor festival, celebrating the liberation of Israel from foreign domination, the restoration of sacred worship in a place of pagan desecration, and the ensuing political autonomy of the Maccabees and the Jewish people.

From the time of the Maccabees (around 160 BCE) until our century, Hanukkah was celebrated simply – one menorah, a few coins for the kids, and oily foods (like latkes) to remember the miracle of the oil that burned for seven days. Lighting the candles was a talmudically-instituted mitzvah that defined the celebration: the rabbis instructed each household to pirsum ha-nes, to proclaim the miracle by placing their hanukiyot in the window so its light would shine out to the world.

But our century provided a unique challenge to American Jews. Surrounded by a welcoming yet imperial culture – one which accepted anyone who would take on its ways – Christmas became a major threat to Jewish unity, purpose, and continuity.

How did the Jews respond? Some reacted by melting in – by putting up “Hanukkahbushes” (can you imagine how offensive that must seem to pious Christians!?!) Most Jews, however, reacted by feeling uncomfortable with the season and with their Jewishness.

Some reacted by putting up outrageous blue and white lights on their roofs, their windows, and around their homes. They purchased electric menorahs to shine through their windows; some even built Maccabee statues for their front lawns. Rather than passing a few small coins to their kids, they began giving significant gifts – not just once, but on each day of the holiday.

While we may not all share this aesthetic style, there is something wonderful about its zest and brazenness – a refusal to be an outcast, to be invisible in their own country. There is something stirring in seeing a Jewish family that responds to feeling threatened not by diminishing their Jewish celebration, not by blurring it, but by augmenting it.

The rabbis of the Talmud established lighting the hanukiyot to proclaim the miracle for all to see. They used candles – the brightest lights of their age. Who knows, if they lived in our time, they might have mandated big, blue light bulbs on the roof, and a giant Hanukyiah in every window!

There is nothing wrong with using the building blocks of our Jewish traditions to strengthen Jewish resolve and to inspire Jewish affirmation. Our people has always expressed its determination to thrive by utilizing whatever rituals or customs were at hand. We are witness to that same dynamic unfolding in our midst.

As we let our lights shine, creating a public affirmation that we are distinct, we then need to come to terms with actually being different.

I would like to propose that we understand different as “special,” rather than as “strange.” Each person is different from each other person; that’s what makes each individual unique and special. The ancient rabbis saw that individuality as evidence of God’s greatness. They noted that when a person makes a coin using the same dye, each coin turns out exactly alike. But when the Holy Blessing One created all humanity through Adam and Eve, no two people turn out the same. How great is God who is able to make each one of us distinctive!

One a larger scale, no two families are identical either. While we all use some constellation of the same terms: “Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, Grandmother, Grandfather” to describe our relationships, no two mothers are the same, and no two relationships are the same either. Instead each connection bears the unmaskable stamp of the two people who are connected through the distinctive contours of their love.

Just as each individual and each relationship is unique and special, so is each culture and each religious tradition. Being Jewish is special and distinct — not in a bad way, but as our unique contribution to what it means to be human. Every culture enriches the sum total of human accomplishment, story, and insight when it remains true to its own perspective and genius.

We Jews must do the same, remaining faithful to what is unique to Judaism as our contribution to humanity in general and as our faithfulness to the good Jews who have come before us.

And what makes Jewish life distinctive?

Chosen by God to live lives of Torah, we do that through:

• Regular study of Jewish sacred writings. By participating in Jewish learning on a regular basis, we make room for the continuing and millennial conversation between God and the Jewish people.
• By practicing the mitzvot (commandments). None of us is perfect, but each of us can continue to grow in the service of God. There is always another mitzvah waiting for us. Call your rabbi for some suggestions on how to walk the path that is Judaism and for ideas about how to grow as a Jew. Both deeds of lovingkindness and of ritual profundity constitute the mitvzot.
• Tefillot, the beautiful prayers and supplications of Jewish tradition, can create a Jewish rhythm and open a space for your soul to find a haven and a home.

December is less chilly when we are warmed by our love of God, our sense of belonging to the Jewish people, walking the path of mitzvot.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.