Christmas For Love, Chanukah For Awe
Bernard Avishai on the radical roots of Chanukah.
It is not a simple matter to be a Jew in America this time of year. Not in Jerusalem either, a few miles from Bethlehem. Christmas, as John Updike writes, is Christianity "at its sweetest." Many have written, some with an air of sweet resignation, about the yearning Jews feel as the days darken: to share in the melodies, the hearth, the love of the child.
It was only a matter of time—was it not?—that we would start finding ways to be absorbed into the spirit of the moment. So we exchange presents, greet the "season," tease out of the ancient Chanukah story our own celebration of light and grace—God bless, eight days, not just one! And we leave behind, in mildly embarrassed obscurity, the tale of Maccabean guerrilla war against Greek occupiers around 165 BC—a mythical victory that had been so much solace for medieval rabbis, forced into ghettos, and more recently, for outnumbered Zionists.
But when you give a second thought to the Chanukah behind the candles, you do feel at odds with the spirit of the time, and not really because the ancient heroics of Judeans seem out of step with Pickwickian fellowship. The fact is, Chanukah is Judaism at its gravest: a radical attack on all forms of idol-worship, including the worship of the love of the child.
When the Maccabees reconsecrated the ancient Temple (Chanukah means "reconsecration") they emptied it of all images—in this case, the Hellenistic statues celebrating the "gods," who personified familiar human virtues—warriors for justice, masters of the natural world, protecting fathers, fecund mothers. There may well have been images of fleshy, innocent children, too.
No wonder, as the Book of Maccabees reveals, a great many residents of ancient Jerusalem loved these statues. One could have had a "season" with them. Nevertheless, Maccabean zealots determined to make a terribly abstract point, even to kill and be killed for it: God is nameless, God is fugitive, God is silent. A kind of Jewish Taliban. True, the Maccabees were defending the God of Torah and Law. But what is law if not an expression of the silenced God?
And so Christmas is for love, Chanukah for awe. While Christmas brings God down to earth, Chanukah dispatches earthly versions of God to the rubble pile. They need God to feel immanent, nearly material like a Greek deity, while we need God to be thought ineffable and mysterious.
Or do they? And do we?
The disparity here is one of timing, I think, not of spiritual insight. Actually, both religious traditions affirm both spontaneous needs. And how could they not? Our common Bible says we are created in God's image. But can we hope to create, like that God, outside the realm of sensuous experience? That's why we say things like, God is like a king, or a teacher, or a way. The danger, people as different as Maimonides and Pascal wrote, comes when we forget how our perceptions are, in a way, also our own creations. We are stuck with mystery and also with metaphor.
Nor do Christianity or Judaism have a monopoly on either. Later on, when spring comes, it is Christians who cope with the awful mystery of living on an earth in which the divine is gone, indeed, has been banished by human willfulness; while Jews celebrate a God who is like "an outstretched arm" come down to earth to take our ancestors out of Egypt. Then, it is their turn to contend with the disquieting precondition of freedom, while we feel gratitude for the power that underlies, not freedom, but surrender, the relief of being cared for.
Even the Judeans at the time of the Maccabean revolt could not be immune. The culminating last book of Maccabees is not at all about national liberation—it is certainly not about a miracle of burning oil—but is a painstaking disquisition on how Jewish law establishes the supremacy of reason over appetite. A (somewhat self-satisfied) Jewish riff on a Greek problem. And who if not Greeks made holidays of military victories? It seems the world of law and idol breaking needed something of the Greeks' materialism, too.
There is something sublime about this tension, I think. Both Jews and Christians struggle with it: We simply choose different times of the year to try to feel one or another side of it. Then again, nobody can really feel just one side at a time—at least, not for long.
That is precisely why so many grown-up Jews envy Christians their capacity to re-enter the mental atmosphere of children as Christmas approaches—why they get down on the floor and play dreidel with children, why they sing that "big miracles" (like children) can happen.
And that is why, after all, so many Christians report feeling despondent on Christmas Day, because they know in their bones that they have been carried away by an unreasonable—dare we say, childish?—notion. They feel the embrace. Intuitively, they also want to acknowledge that they are on their own.
The point is, maybe we can help each other, Jews and Christians, during this time of year. Maybe we have something to teach each other. God is a mystery, yet we are blessed. Break the idols. Hear the Good News.
A version of this column first appeared in the Boston Globe 20 years ago.