As the holiday season approaches, one can already hear the predictable fever pitch of pundits on both sides of the “war on Christmas.” Jews are often caught in the middle of the Scylla and Charybdis of this struggle.
On the one hand, for the sake of darchei shalom, the ways of peace, we accept it if Chanukah gets pushed to the sidelines, but there is also a required element of pirsumei nisah, the promulgating of the miracle, which is lost as a result.
On the other hand, we don’t want to be too forceful in promoting the holiday. We are aware of the resentment that can come from this type of approach. What is needed, then, is some common ground that represents a way out of this struggle.
Surprisingly, the common ground is the call to repentance at this time of year, found in the intellectual history of both religious traditions.
In chassidic thought, this is a very strong theme. Chanukah is seen as an extension of the High Holidays and the time when our fates are finally sealed. It is seen as a time for renewal, a concept that connects to the new month that comes during the holiday and the midrashic idea that the placing of the month was one of the points to which the Greeks objected, and it is perceived as a time that hints at God’s forgiveness.
These ideas are found in the literature of the Lubavitch, Sanz and Karlin dynasties, among others. The idea is also found in Moses Chaim Luzzatto’s Way of God, in which he calls the Hasmonean victory a “return” to Torah and worship. Moreover, the link to forgiveness can be seen in Rabbi Shlomo Yitshaki’s prayer book. There, Rashi explains that the reason the portion read in synagogue on Chanukah relates to the gifts of the princes is that it was the commandment to build the Tabernacle that assured Moses he was forgiven (according to several midrashim, the Tabernacle was complete on the 25th day of Kislev, the first day of Chanukah, but was only consecrated at the beginning of Nisan.)
Perhaps underlying this link to forgiveness is the slight element of solemnity on Chanukah. Unlike the festival of Purim, there were no festive meals instituted on Chanukah. For this reason, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (13th century) says meals that celebrate Chanukah do not have the status of a seudat mitzvah, a meal that celebrates the fulfilment of a commandment. This idea is echoed by Rabbi Mordechai Yaffeh (16th century), who says that, unlike Purim, Jewish lives were not in danger during Chanukah. The only threat was that Jews would turn away from their faith, and their military success prevented that from happening. Thus, the holiday is one that commemorates the Hasmoneans’ submission to God.
The idea of forgiveness is also found in relation to the Christmas season. For example, as American author B.D. Forbes has noted, the Puritan English Parliament in 1644 declared the holiday a day of penance instead of a feast day. Dietrich Bonhoffer, a German theologian at the turn of the 20th century, repeats this idea and says Christmas is a time for repentance, not rejoicing. Moreover, German author Christoph Dohmen suggests that there is even a similarity between the liturgy of Christmas and that of Yom Kippur.
In an interesting conceptual parallel, the call for repentance comes against a backdrop of a recognition of the seriousness of the holiday. Pope Leo (fifth century) saw the holiday as a time for reflection, not for “dull carnal joy.” Indeed, even gift-giving could be seen in this context. As American management Prof. Jean M. Bartunek and student Boram Do demonstrate, framing the consumerism of the holiday as profane is a misrepresentation. Bartunek and Do say the practice of gift-giving was originally associated with charity, a way of thinking about those who are less fortunate, and that it had the benefit of preventing rowdiness by keeping people off the streets.
Now, I am not saying either holiday should be celebrated any differently than it has been, nor am I promoting syncretism. All I am saying is that there is a basis for common ground, and that should be emphasized at this time of year.
Jonathan L. Milevsky is a PhD candidate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.