But when I became the rabbi at Oxford University, in England, in my early twenties, I quickly developed a deep-seated respect and appreciation for the Christian students, who were my greatest supporters and helped me promote my message of love of God and humanity. From coming nearly every night to help me mail out fliers and put up posters, to attending my classes in droves, the Christian students became my students. And when some of them developed crises of faith, I worked my darndest to return them to their Christian piety, which had done so much to make them good people.
Through these students, for the very first time, I came to appreciate the religious nature of Christmas for Christians, as opposed to its market-driven, commercial counterpart. Of course, it would never be something that I could celebrate, because the birth of a divine child contradicts the Jewish message that God is celestial and non-anthropomorphic. But I began to see how, for Christians, the Christmas festival was about living a godly life and being prepared to swim against the current of societal trends, to do what is righteous even if it is unpopular.
I would like to see an America that is more spiritual, without being more self-righteous or judgmental. Therefore, I would like to see an America in which more Christians celebrate the religious nature of Christmas, and go to church more throughout the year.
Of course, for me the holiday that was celebrated was not Christmas but Chanuka, the festival of lights. Chanuka commemorates the victory of a small band of Jewish rebels against the might of the Greeks, who sought to impose Hellenism on the Jews and wipe away their faith. The lights of the menorah speak to the eternal ability of light to triumph over darkness and good to win over evil. The lights of the menorah also speak to the ability for the light of the soul to illuminate our lives.
I love watching my children light the Chanuka menorah. Each child lights their own, for being a lamplighter and making the earth brighter is an obligation in which each individual must participate.
We then sing songs by the menorah and play with the dreidel. It’s the kosher kind of gambling, seeing as we play with chocolate money. The menorah lights make the home glow, lending it a warm and vibrant ambiance.
This year, Chanuka will have an even more special meaning for me, as it will come just a few days after my 40th birthday. The Talmud says that 40 brings wisdom.
And what is wisdom? It is light.
The famous Jewish parable says, "What is the difference between the smart man and the wise man? The smart man can get out of situations into which the wise man would never have gotten into." Wisdom illuminates the wise man’s path. He doesn’t make silly mistakes but rather uses his vision to inspire his family along the righteous path.