Traditions are identity. They are what we use to define us. Just as a doctor defines himself by his long white coat, and a soldier finds identity in his uniform and rank, so too a family and a nation find their identities in the traditions they embrace, the customs they practice, and the rituals they observe. To live without tradition is to be stripped naked of one’s uniqueness. It is to be rendered nameless and anonymous. It is to be left forever questioning who we are and what we stand for.
As a Jewish boy growing up in the United States, I loved Thanksgiving but felt alienated from Christmas. Thanksgiving was a holiday that was right up the Jewish alley, a time to reflect on all of God's blessings and to draw closer to family. In fact, the very existence of Thanksgiving made me feel so proud to be an American. Here was a secular democracy acknowledging that its bounty came from God. As a Jewish boy, I was taught to say a blessing every time I ate even the smallest morsel of food. On Thanksgiving, America offered a collective blessing to thank God for its sustenance.
Christmas however, to me, was not a national holiday, but a Christian one. It did not include me, and I felt like an outsider in its presence. Even Chanukah was inadequate comfort for the all-encompassing, all-consuming Christmas behemoth. From Christmas lights that flooded our streets, to Christmas carols that filled our ears, there was no way of escaping it. We went from the inclusiveness of Thanksgiving in November to the exclusiveness of Christmas in December, and it was quite a jolt.
The Gift of Learning
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.