By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
At this time of year I see such pretty lights and decorations all around and I feel like I want to add some sparkle to my home! I love Christmas balls, they are festive and pretty and I think would look great in a bowl or hanging in my home. (When I lived in Belgium we often hung green apple Christmas balls as they are a sign of hope in winter). With this said, would this be considered avodah zara (involvement with another religion)? Of course no Christmas tree involved! What are your thoughts?
I would say that this time of year is one of the greatest challenges to our Judaism, and especially that of our children. The astounding allure of the sound and light show taking place in every mall and store, all the glitter and catchy Christmas carols (many of which were written by Jewish composers!) fill the air and, inadvertently, our heads, make it beyond difficult not to be swept up in the dazzle of it all. The streets of our neighborhoods feel like airport runways with all the lights glittering on many homes. (My favorite was one house and yard lit up with so many lights flashing and twinkling that it could rival Times Square; the house next door had a small lit up sign with an arrow pointing toward their next door neighbor which simply said “ditto”).
It is quite clear that if we try to match what they do, we don’t stand a chance! If we try to add the dazzle into our holiday, our modest Hanukkah lights ‘don’t hold a candle’ to their mega-watt light show. The way we need to go is not to try to outdo them, or worse, to join in their celebration by allowing their celebratory items to enter our homes during this time. We rather should show our families that we’re comfortable saying that our neighbor’s decorations are very beautiful, but we have something deeper. This will challenge all of us to search more deeply into our tradition and understand what Hanukkah truly represents and how it profoundly affects our lives. We need to understand what the battle with the Greeks was truly about; what was it about our belief system that they were challenging? We should contemplate just how the Macabees succeeded, despite the overwhelming odds, to defeat the most powerful army in the world. We must understand why the Temple was worth fighting for; why there was such a great celebration for getting it back. What was really so important about some oil burning longer than it should have; is that the celebration or was it the battle? If the main miracle was the battle, why do we celebrate with candles and not with a Seder telling the story of the war with the Greeks?
If we could acquire, through study and learning, a deeper understanding of what we’re doing in our Jewish homes during this time, we will be able to pass on to our children the strength of Jewish character needed to retain their Jewish pride during a time when it seems, by all that surrounds us that our belief system is second-fiddle to the system of our hosts. Many wonderful websites exist today in which, by the click of a mouse, you can greatly enhance your understanding of Hanukkah. Check out, as one example, aish.com.
By all accounts, the core of the battle between the Macabees and the Greeks was about assimilation. The Syrian-Greeks sought to impose their Hellenistic culture upon the vanquished Jews, rendering their Torah and observances obsolete and coaxing them to melt into Greek society. Unlike other conquerors, the Greeks saw no need to physically destroy the Temple; they had no problem with it standing like some sort of museum of the Jewish past (sadly, like many old synagogues in Europe today). They defiled its holiness then let it stand. They had no problem with Jews, as long as they were “Greek Jews” with no observances or walls separating them from their hosts.
The Macabees saw this as an existential danger to Jewish survival and were willing to fight to the death for this. The miracle of the oil showed that their battle conquest was miraculous. The oil was the illustration of their success. When you mix oil in water, after a while the oil separates and rises to the top. When we remain loyal to our Torah, its light represented by the menorah, even when disbursed among the nations we are able to stay together and rise to the top!
To decorate our houses with our neighbors beautiful balls and tinsel would run quite contrary to this message. The miracle of Hanukkah shows that, although we may be fully integrated and successful players in our society, we still retain our separateness. We need to beautify our homes, not with lights and holly, but with the timeless messages of our past, which accompany us into the future.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.