You probably encounter the question often, as I do during the month of December, in the supermarket or at work, from friendly but slightly out-of-their-comfort-zone strangers and acquaintances. ”Do you celebrate Christmas or Chanukah?” they awkwardly ask. The question is posed as if the holidays were designed to be a personal choice between the two. Paper or plastic? Would you like white meat or dark? Is one indivisible God to your taste, or perhaps you prefer the accessibility of the Trinity? In truth, Chanukah came into existence over one hundred and fifty years before the Common Era, and centuries before Christianity. Jews throughout the Middle East and the Orient have happily observed Chanukah without the least idea of Christianity’s Nativity festival, and the reverse is undoubtedly true of millions of Christians worldwide.
And yet, the juxtaposition of these two expressions of rite and religion provide a striking contrast in styles. Chanukah is the only holiday on the Jewish calendar that demands a public display; we are told by the Talmud to place our menorahs where they can be seen by passers-by. “Pirsumei Nisa”, this is called, a spreading of awareness of the miracles which G-d bestowed upon our Hasmonean predecessors in their battles and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Our Christian neighbors seem equally focused on spreading the light of the holiday season, usually in the literal sense. The blazing lights of residential holiday displays often make our ritual of placing elegant but rather unassuming flickering candles or oil lamps on our window sills seem pointless, more likely to arouse smiles of bemusement than feelings of spiritual awe.
But it is precisely the vision of the Chanukah lights that expresses the uniqueness and tenacity of the Jewish worldview. The mitzvah of the Chanukah lights is given to us as a commandment to be performed in our houses and synagogues; one does not discharge one’s obligation by engineering a giant Menorah in the town square. The message of this aspect of the mitzva is simple – you may conquer the world with your might, with your intellectual achievements, you may gain millions of adherents, but your foreign ways and outlook will not cross the thresholds of our domiciles and places of worship. Outside may be glitter and glamour, the deafening roar of the majority culture and the seductive siren call of the global village, but the values they espouse and ambitions they engender cannot extinguish the steady burn of Jewish belief. Amid the overpowering blaze remains the subtle wink of the menorah. “Not in our house”, we declare with our colored candles, in much the same way that the Maccabees of old successfully resisted the advancing Greek culture. In our homes the light of Torah will hold sway, the Eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish people will carry the day. We may fall short in racking up kilowatt hours, but the sanctuaries of our homes are never overpowered.
Rabbi Raphael Landesman is currently Head of School at Shearim Torah High School for Girls in Phoenix, AZ. He writes Torah content for the Phoenix Community Kollel's weekly "Shabbos Spirit" and periodically for the Arizona Jewish News.