Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Hanukkah Has Nothing To Do With Christmas

Guess which Jewish holiday is most like Christmas?

That's right -- Shavuot! Surprised? Don't know what Shavuot is? Read on....

Several years ago, when I was a part of the Museum Minyan of Houston's Beth Yeshurun Congregation (the largest Conservative congregation in Houston, a city of mega-churches and mega-gogues), it fell to me to give a drash on the Shabbat nearest to Christmas. Rabbi Mordecai Finley, of Los Angeles' Ohr Ha Torah, where I had belonged before moving to Houston, had given many interesting talks about Christmas in his synagogue at this time of year, and I was influenced by him to, as it were, "take Christmas on" in its own terms. Though I admit, it was with a somewhat strange feeling that I walked into my minyan on a Shabbos morning with a King James Version of the Christian Bible in my hand, and opened it up to read John 1:1, not necessarily a text with which my hearers were familiar.

Here is that very famous opening line of the 4th Gospel, the non-synoptic Gospel, the one that isn't "like the others." "In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

How might we understand this Jewishly? That's easy. Think about the traditional as well as Jewish mystical understanding of the relationship between God and the Torah (which, by the way, is a much more natural interpretation of "the Word" than thinking of a person, even a Divine person, as "the Word"). It would not be badly summarized by that line. The idea of the Torah as existing before Creation is found, for example, in the Zohar: "God looked into the Torah and created the world" (Zohar 2:161b). At, an Orthodox site, one finds the sentence, "Before the universe was made, the Torah was God's companion." If we think of the story told by the Torah, we might be a little startled to realize that the founders of Judaism did not have the Torah. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, even Moses, came to adulthood as Jews without the Torah. How could that be? For the later rabbis, the Torah must always already have been in existence. A classic example: Rashi interprets Genesis 25:27, that Jacob 'dwelled in tents,' as meaning that Jacob engaged in Torah study. Before the Torah had been given to the Jews! Because, you see, "In the beginning was the Word...."

But back to Christmas...

For Christians, the all-important next part of this story is that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). This is the phenomenon known as the Incarnation, and the holiday that celebrates it is Christmas.

For Jews, the next part of this story is that the Torah was given to the Jews at Sinai. And the holiday that celebrates this is...Shavuot.

For Jews, the world-historical entry of the Word into human history, into a tangible form we can see, is the Torah given to Moses at Sinai. This is Revelation, not Incarnation. Famously, at Deut. 30:12, we learn,"It is not in Heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it?." We might say, it is not in Heaven any more: it is here, dwelling with us. We might even say that for Jews, "Christmas came early."

Don't let the Hanukkah/Christmas coincidence of candles and mid-winter schedule fool you. The Jewish holiday whose theological meaning is the closest parallel to Christmas is that mid-summer festival most contemporary Jews ignore: Shavuot.

(And by the way, the Christians actually 'get' this. The Christian holiday called "Pentecost" follows fifty days after Easter. Pentecost is the holiday celebrating the founding of the Church through the Holy Spirit, the third of the Divine persons of the Trinity. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder, and 49 days after the two-day Passover holiday comes...Shavuot. Check here in the spring for a posting on the relationship between Passover and Easter....)

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