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December 9, 2018 9:04 am

Hanukkah vs. Christmas: Does It Have to Be a Contest?

avatar by Bernard Starr


An Eastern-European menorah. Photo: Jonathan Greenstein.

In an opinion article in The New York Times on December 1, “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,” Michael Davis Lukas expressed his conflict over the holiday.

On the one hand, he mocks Hanukkah for having been pumped up as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas — when, in his view, Judah Maccabee’s military victory that underpins the Hanukkah celebration was a win for religious fundamentalism. On the other hand, even as an “assimilated Jew,” he embraces the Hanukkah traditions of latkes, dreidels, and eight days of gifts to offset his three-year-old daughter’s affection for Christmas.

Many secular Jews face the same dilemma as Michael Lukas. They embrace the goodies of Hanukkah to compete with Christmas, but wonder “why all the fuss about Hanukkah,” and ask if it is worthy of a celebration at all.

It’s true that Hanukkah is not a religious holiday. It is not biblically mandated, doesn’t have a synagogue service, and won’t get you any days off from work. Nevertheless, Lukas ignores important historical facts that have been overshadowed by the emphasis on Hanukkah’s “miracle” of one day’s oil for the menorah candles lasting eight nights.

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Judah Maccabee did not, as suggested by Lukas, launch his rebellion and guerrilla warfare campaign primarily to punish Hellenized Jews for adopting Greek names or Greek customs. Nor was he fighting for fundamentalism over cosmopolitanism. His battle was for monotheism over paganism, and for the survival of Judaism.

In 167 BCE, King Antiochus IV, who ruled over a vast Greek and Syrian empire, banned the practice of Judaism. His decree forbade circumcision and the study of Torah, and prohibited adherence to kosher laws. In an even more devastating assault on Judaism, he dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the worship of Zeus. Paganism was declared the kingdom’s sole religion, with a warning of death to violators. After Antiochus IV died in 164 BCE, Judah and his rebels captured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple to the worship of the God of Israel.

The resurrection of Judaism — with or without the oil legend — is surely worthy of celebration.

Also, Lukas need not fret over his daughter joining team Santa or wanting to adopt Christmas traditions. Fear of assimilation has produced obituaries for Judaism in every generation for thousands of years. The answer to these epitaphs has been the same as Mark Twain’s response to a rumor that he was dying: “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Consider as well that the Christmas displays of the nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus, which make many Jews cringe, actually represent the beginning of a thoroughly Jewish story. A Jewish boy is born to a Jewish mother, he is circumcised on the eighth day, and his mother is purified in a Temple ritual. Then, as reported in the Gospel of Luke, the family celebrates the Torah-mandated holidays in the Jerusalem Temple — requiring an 80-mile trek from Nazareth over rugged terrain. Add to this the consensus of Jewish scholars that Jesus remained a dedicated practicing Jew throughout his life.

On a side note, whatever one’s opinion about the festival of Hanukkah, who can argue with the miracle of latkes?

Bernard Starr, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College. His latest book is Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art.

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