Shabbat Hanukkah

Rabbi Weintraub and our very special dreidel, Dr. Sorkin

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
December 28, 2019

Last week I mentioned the Christmas tree of Theodore Herzl. The story of Jews and Christmas trees is even stranger than I mentioned.

According to The Jewish Forward article that spoke of the Herzl’s tree:

The first recorded mention of a Christmas tree in Vienna was actually in the home of a wealthy Jewish family, according to the World of Habsburgs. An 1814 report compiled by the state police references the tree in the salon of the Arnsteins, a family of Jewish bankers. Apparently, Fanny von Arnstein had brought the Christmas tree custom to Vienna from her native Berlin.

Jews brought Christmas trees to Vienna? Could they really come “to epitomize a pious sense of family and bourgeois domesticity.” Is that what they stand for today? I know Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and even Jews who light trees in their homes. Some do it for “cultural reasons” while others do it for traditional religious reasons. Rebecca and I love the BBC/PBS Show “Call the Midwife.” In this year’s Christmas Special, the nuns and midwives journeyed to a small island off the coast of northern Scotland. When one of the characters put up a Christmas tree in 1964, the local Presbyterians revolted. It was seen as a pagan custom!

In college, Rebecca had a dear friend who would always light the Hanukkiah with her--and then she would go to her house to decorate the tree together. They each shared their holidays--but clearly in their own domains.

While I find the Viennese example strange and challenging, this time of year makes me think about assimilation--its challenges and its benefits. Some describe Hanukkah not merely as a fight between the Maccabees and the Syrian Greeks but at least initially as a civil war--between the assimilationist Hellenistic Jews and those who wanted to hold firmly to traditions, to prevent any whiff of assimilation.

In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, spoke of being a Jew in the home and a German on the street. He held firmly to his religious traditions, while arguing that Jews could participate in German culture. I feel the same way--although I might be more traditional in some ways than that Orthodox rabbi--since I walk around with a colorful kippah on--marking me as Jewish wherever I go!

Living in America in the 21st century, I love this country dearly. It has created a space where I can participate in civic matters, share the insights of our traditions, and live authentically as Jews. In some ways, Conservative/Masorti Judaism is an inheritor of Rabbi Hirsch--even if he wouldn’t have us! Yet this time of year, I feel less American than any other time. Wherever I go there is Christmas music. Everything is green and red. It is lovely to see little hints of blue here and there, to see menorahs in apartment lobbies and store windows, but sometimes we find comical displays. How many people saw matzah next to the Hanukkah candles at Publix? In Atlanta, my mom found a nativity scene in the Hanukkah section of TJMaxx--why? It was blue and white!

Most challenging has been the public school system. I was incredibly impressed with H’s school, but have heard many more complaints of trips to see Santa, or Santa coming to school. Talking to one prinicipal, he explained that Christmas is a secular holiday. I said that really saddens me. Christmas should be a sacred holiday for Christians, celebrating an important moment in their religious history. Instead, it is a way for everyone to buy more stuff. One can walk anywhere to see quickly that there is no war on Christmas, but this supposedly secular Christmas does feel like the tyranny of the majority!

Returning to assimilation, the Chancellor of JTS, Arnie Eisen, wrote about the history of assimilation in this country. He quoted one of his predecessors, the incredible Gerson Cohen.

Gerson Cohen, chancellor of JTS from 1972 to 1986 and a magisterial historian of Jewish societies and cultures in many eras on many continents, probed these dilemmas 50 years ago in a brilliant essay entitled “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.” Cohen took issue with the well-known midrash that attributes Jewish survival to the fact that our ancestors did not change their names, abandon their ancestral language, or stop wearing distinctive clothing. He notes that this generalization did not hold for Jacob’s grandchildren in Egypt (who according to the Torah took Egyptian names such as Aaron and Moses), or for the later generations who adopted Greek names like those of the ambassadors whom Judah Maccabee sent to Rome, Jason and Eupolemos. Nor did Jews refrain from writing and giving sermons in other languages than Hebrew, or (when permitted to do so) from dressing like their gentile neighbors. (Arnie spoke of wearing a v-neck sweater, and I stand here in a humble suit.) Cohen forcefully disputed the claim that Jews survived only by remaining utterly distinct from the cultures that surrounded them. Rather, “a frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity, but that in a profound sense, this assimilation and acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source or renewed vitality.” (Jewish History and Jewish Destiny, 151)

Rather than a curse, assimilation is far more a mixed blessing. It has allowed us to understand our Torah in new ways. One of the things I loved about the old Hertz Chumash was his including Christian commentators when he thought they were clearer than Rashi! Assimilation has allowed us to participate in our surrounding cultures AND helped to improve our broader society. One need only look at the philanthropy at art museums, theaters, social service organizations, to see the impact of Jewish supporters. Look at Maimonides, one of our most prominent commentators and authors. He wrote of the importance of studying science, medicine, history, modern philosophy, and every other discipline--so that we could better understand the world that Gd created!

In today’s world, Masorti/Conservative Judaism, is not only a middle ground between a more radical reform and more traditional Orthodox. Rather, it is the continued struggle to find the right balance. Nachman Krochmal reminded us that the Torah is “very much like a path that is beset on one side with freezing cold and on the other with consuming fire. We must all work our way to the middle so that we can derive the benefits of both the coldness and the warmth. Only in that way can we approach the great resources that the middle of the road holds for us!” (Cohen Jewish History and Jewish Destiny)

To be a Conservative Jew is to continually search, to continually work, to continually strive for connection. Our Torah is a gift to this world. We must embrace it. We must live it. We must love it. Yet, we must also remember to live IN this world.

So did I have a Christmas tree? Of course not, but I can see the beauty in them at my neighbors’ homes. I can invite them to light the Hanukkah candles with me, to show them the beauty of OUR traditions, to remind them, that we will remain a light unto the nations. Shabbat shalom.