By Rabbi Howard A. Berman
My husband comes from a Christian family, but we’ve decided to raise our family Jewish. With Hanukkah coming up, we were wondering about putting Hanukkah lights up on our house, like my husband used to do. What are the customs around that?
This question addresses a larger interest in the Jewish community today, as the Festival of Hanukkah continues to evolve into a major dimension of the winter holiday season in American culture. Some historical background might be helpful. Hanukkah, the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” commemorates the struggle for religious freedom by the Jewish people in the face of oppression from the conquering Greek empire in 168 B.C.E. The grassroots rebellion in Israel against the tyranny of the despotic ruler of the region in that period, Antiochus IV of Syria, was led by the mythic hero Judah, known, along with his followers, as the “Maccabees”—a term with various meanings, including “the hammer,” striking for justice. In December of 165, the Maccabees were successful in recapturing control of Jerusalem and its great Temple, which had been desecrated by the Greek forces. Judah led the restoration of the sanctuary, and, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, instituted a new Festival of Dedication (“Hanukkah”) to commemorate the victory—declaring that it should be celebrated annually. By the second century C.E., the lighting of candles for the eight days of the holiday had already become widely observed.
Through the centuries, the festival continued to evolve with new meanings, symbols, music, foods and celebrations, as was the case with all Jewish holidays in the course of time. In all of these developments, the Jewish observances reflected the influence of the other seasonal rituals of the broader societies and cultures in which Jews lived. In the case of Hanukkah, there was an additional link to the universal winter solstice festivals that have been observed by many religions and cultures through history, celebrating light and warmth in the midst of the season’s darkness. The holiday became a beloved family tradition affirming faith and hope in the midst of centuries of persecution. In modern times, the festival has emerged as a major expression of Jewish spiritual identity in the midst of the December holiday season, which reflects the rich diversity of American society. Today, Hanukkah is widely recognized and embraced by people of all faiths as a major dimension of this shared time of celebration and its universal ideals of joy and peace.
In the popular discussion regarding the ever-heightening contemporary profile of Hanukkah, there is always a debate on the theological asymmetry between this “minor” festival and Christmas. I would argue that in this period of history, there is no such thing as a “minor” Jewish holiday…and that every opportunity for meaningful, creative Jewish engagement and celebration should be fully embraced. As mentioned above, every holiday has undergone change and broadening of its observance in the course of Jewish history—and in most cases, this included the incorporation of influences and traditions from non-Jewish sources. Just think of the afikomen matzah ceremony or the tradition of reclining at the Passover seder—taken, respectively, from ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The inevitable influence of Christmas/solstice celebrations on the observance of Hanukkah is squarely in this line of historical precedent, and is in no way a sign of “assimilation” or co-opting of alien practice. This includes the growing popularity of home decoration.
There are many elements of neutral, seasonal motifs that can be creatively and effectively used to provide a festive, attractive atmosphere for the holiday. There is nothing “Christian” about lights, candles, seasonal plants, colorful features and winter themes. Using the Hanukkah menorah as a centerpiece, enhanced with other traditional symbols, such as the Star of David and the dreidel—like the menorah, now a contemporary art form with many wonderful crafted examples—anyone should feel free to create a warm decorative home environment for Hanukkah. In addition to the lighting of the candles for the nightly ceremony, electric menorahs for window display can be an important part of this effort. For interfaith and multi-cultural families, this opportunity provides a particularly meaningful way to share traditions and mark the season from an authentically Jewish perspective. Obviously, choices have to be made, and everyone must determine their own “fine line” as to balancing the broader, neutral elements of seasonal decoration with those that are explicitly linked to Christmas itself. Some might consider stringing colored lights on the outside of a house a bit too much in that direction, but outdoor displays for Hanukkah are indeed becoming popular, and with discretion and imagination, I believe this can be done successfully.
So…light the lights! And best wishes for a happy Hanukkah, and for this broader shared season of joy and love.