Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?  


Many non-Jews think of Chanukah as, “What Jews do at Christmastime.”

Others know the story of “a little cruse of oil” that was supposed to last for one day, but “miraculously” lasted for eight.

In truth the cruse of oil story is as much the reason Jews celebrate Chanukah, as Santa Claus is the reason religious Christians celebrate Christmas.

The real story of Chanukah is long and complex, but here is its essence, and the vital lesson it teaches all of us today.

Long ago in Judaea (about 168 BCE), the Syrian Greeks and their King Antiochus ruled over Judea. They were content to leave the Jews alone as long as they paid their taxes and there was peace in the streets.

At this time there were basically two types of Jews living in Judaea.

  • There were Jews who were loyal to their religion and way of life.
  • Another group of Jews thought it would be to their advantage if they acted more like the Greeks. They thought their Jewish customs and religious celebrations made it harder to have good relationships and make profitable business relationships with wealthy Greek businessmen.

In order to accomplish their goal, this second group of Jew stopped practicing their religion. They wanted to see Judaea become a Greek city-state. If that happened Judaea could coin its own money, which would be a great advantage in business.

So instead of studying Torah, observing Holy Days, and the Sabbath, they hung out in the Greek gymnasia where they could make lots of good business contacts.

The tension between these two groups of Jews reached the point that a civil war erupted between them.

When he saw that there was violence in the streets of Judaea, Antiochus sent in his troops and outlawed the Jewish religion and all Jewish practice. His forces polluted the Temple in Jerusalem with idols of Greek gods, and offered sacrifice of pigs (a forbidden animal for Jews) to them.

The Jewish forces, known as the Maccabees, fought against the Syrian–Greeks for three years and finally drove the foreign troops out of Judaea. It was the first time in history people fought for religious liberty. And they won!

Chanukah is an eight-day Jewish festival commemorating that victory.

But religious freedom is a value we all should treasure and celebrate.

Three Essentials for Productive Interfaith Dialogue

Interfaith dialogue and cooperation have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

As one of the handful of Jews at Ashland Grammar School in East Orange, NJ, teachers frequently called on me to explain whatever Jewish holiday caused my recent absence from school or were coming up on the calendar. I relished those opportunities though my knowledge, looking back, was limited.

As time has gone by and my knowledge has increased, I have come to see three vital essentials for interfaith dialogue:

I. Diversity is not just something to “tolerate.” Diversity is something to embrace, affirm and respect.

When I was about five, my parents gave me a present that charted the direction of my life. It was a phonograph record called, “Little Songs on Big Subjects,” cute little jingles by Hy Zaret about the importance of mutual respect and understanding. Some of my favorite lyrics that I still recall from memory are:

As the choo choo said to the railroad track, don’t care if the passengers are white or black.

Ho Ho Ho, use your brain; you can learn common sense from a railroad train …

As the peach pit said to the apple core, the color of the skin doesn’t matter no more,

Ho Ho Ho, can’t you see, the color of the skin doesn’t matter to me!


George Washington liked good roast beef; Haym Solomon liked fish.

But when Uncle Sam served liberty, they both enjoyed their dish.

Oh I may not know a lot of things but one thing I can state!

Both native-born and foreign-born have made our country great.


As I began to immerse myself in Jewish learning, I found these wonderful ideals in famous morsels from Midrash (Jewish folklore):

When God fashioned the first human being, the Eternal One used earth from the four corners of the earth, so no one could say, “My country is greater than yours.”

 Why in the beginning did God make only one couple in the Garden of Eden? To teach us that we all have the same ancestors and that no one should say my lineage is greater than yours. (B. Sanhedrin 38B)

In 1927, a rabbi, a priest, and a minister in Boston formed the “Tolerance Trio.” They traveled around the country promoting tolerance of faiths other than our own. It was a great idea, but 90 years later, we should strive for more than tolerance. Ninety years later, our goal should be affirmation for and deep respect for religious traditions and diverse cultures.

At bedrock, I like to teach that God created diversity.

In Genesis (ch.11) we read that once people all spoke the same language and thought the same way.   All this unity displeased God so the Eternal One scattered people and created diversity. Keep that in mind: Diversity is God’s plan. Affirming it should be our ideal.


II. We must learn to listen (and listen to learn).

 It is understandable that we want people to learn about our thoughts and our way of life. But it is our desire and our ability to listen that will make or break dialogue and interfaith cooperation.

It is not an accident that our most important Jewish prayer, which we often call, “The Watchword of our Faith,” is the שמע (Sh’ma), “Hear, (Listen) O, Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal One alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Too often we do not really listen to others. We just wait for our chance to have them listen to us.

We would all do well to take seriously the old saying: “God gave us two ears but only one mouth, so that we would listen (at least) twice as much as we speak.”


III. We must learn to disagree without being disagreeable

 Another of my favorite lyrics in, “Little Songs on Big Subjects” is:

I’m proud to be me, but I also see

You’re just as proud to be you!

We might look at things

A bit differently

But lots of good people do …”

 The truth is if we get into serious dialogue, some of my Muslim friends and I might view the issues surrounding the Middle East today very differently. Some of my Catholic friends and I may differ over reproductive rights.

Can we discuss the issues on which we do not see eye to eye without anger? The viability of meaningful dialogue hinges on our answer to that question.

There is so much society might gain from adherents of different faith traditions—along with those of no faith tradition—coming together to act as one on issue of agreement and agreeing to act separately on issues we view differently.

  • If we embrace diversity as a positive good rather than something to merely tolerate —
  • If we really listen to (and engage?) one another –
  • And if we can disagree on issues and still remain friends –

Then dialogue can move us, slowly but meaningfully, closer to the ideal world of which the Prophet Micah (4:4) dreamed, when each of us shall sit under our vines and our fig trees with no one to make us afraid.






What is God?

This is what God means to me. I understand God in two specific ways:

  • God is the invisible, incorporeal force Who initiated the process that led to the evolution of the world, as we know it. The process was orderly and purposeful. I believe God created humanity to be in charge of and responsible for God’s world.
  • God is a Force that lies in potential within each of us that wants each of us to use the talents with which God has blessed us to make the world a more just caring and compassionate place.

We have free will.

In many ways the aspect of God inside of us is like a muscle. We must cultivate and strengthen that muscle if it is to be useful to us.

We humans are not puppets. God wants us to do good, but God does not make us do good.

There is both good and evil in our world. We can choose to incline our thoughts and actions in either of those directions. God wants us to use the minds with which we are blessed, to analyze the ramifications of choices we make, and choose to perform acts of kindness and caring that make a difference in the lives of others.

There is much about God that we cannot understand, that we will never understand. As humanity continues to solve the mysteries of life and gain greater mastery over the forces of nature, the possibilities for both good and evil multiply.

A prime example is the internal combustion engine. The invention allows us to get from point A to B at speeds unimaginable even100 years ago. Yet no one can deny that invention has claimed the lives of millions of people.

Two things are clear to me as we continue to unravel life’s mysteries:

  • The gap between what we know about God and what we cannot understand will always be infinite.
  • The consequences of our choices for good or for evil will escalate dramatically.

At the end of the day, though, God’s desire for us today and forever is the same as God’s desire for humanity at the time of creation: to use our talents to make a more just caring and compassionate society. Each of us must choose whether and in what ways we wish to work toward that goal.

Who created God? For me God is Eternal. God was and always will be there.