Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, December 24, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Today is Erev Hanukah and amazingly Erev Christmas as well. Every December we Jews deal with the phenomenon known as the December Dilemma – Christmas programs are held in schools, everyone (despite the alleged war on Christmas) wishes you a Merry Christmas, you can’t walk five feet without hearing a Christmas song, Christmas trees and wreaths are everywhere. This may be nice for Christians but for us Jews it feels sometimes like it is being rammed down our throats. But it needn’t be. Some people including many Christians bemoan the commercialism of Christmas but that is our culture - it affects Hanukah and every other sacred event in our nation – don’t look now but 9/11 sales events and 9/11 cards will be coming soon to a town near you. Christmas has a powerful religious message for its adherents that we can appreciate just as Hanukah has a powerful message for us Jews.
Some people link the two holidays. They are both in the winter, they both fall on the 25th of their respective months, they both include lights and candle lighting as part of the experience. But beyond these elements there is little to connect the two. Not everyone is aware of that. As when the radio show producer called me for an on air interview about Hanukah when I was just starting as a rabbi in Appleton WI. “So rabbi,” he asked, “what can you tell our listeners about how Hanukah is the Jewish celebration of the birth of Jesus?” Huh?! Radio silence as I tried to figure out how not to start a pogrom against the Appleton Jewish community.
But there is another very interesting connection between the two holidays and that has to do with Sukkot. We are all familiar with the classic rabbinic explanation of why we celebrate Hanukah: When the Maccabees under Judah took back control of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount from the Hellenist Syrians they found only one kosher cruse of olive oil to light the menorah in the Temple. They lit it and instead of lasting only one day it lasted 8 until new oil could be procured.
The problem with this explanation is that we happen to have a number of historical sources which refute the story of the miracle of oil. The story of the oil is found in the Babylonian Talmud, redacted in the late 5th century of the common era. But there are two historical chronicles from a few generations after the events related to the Hanukah story which occurred in 164 BCE which know of no miracle oil story. According to these sources the victory and restoration – rededication of the Templewas celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev because: (The purification) happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners…They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths (Sukkot), remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 2 Maccabees 10:1-9.
At the Kallah I taught the important connection between sacred space dedications and 8 day periods throughout the Bible. But the connection with Sukkot is significant. Sukkot is the most joyous of holiday festivals. It is the season of ingathering, when the cupboards are most full. As a Biblical festival it is also a Temple-centric observance. Every Jew was supposed to show up and present himself on the festival.
It so happens that Sukkot is also connected to Christmas. According to the Gospel of Luke (2:8) when Jesus was born, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks in the fields. Sheep do not go roaming around the fields in December, even in Israel. Luke also records that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel to inform her that she was pregnant in the 6th month of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, John the Baptist’s mother. Elizabeth became pregnant when Zechariah, her husband, who was a priest returned home from serving in the Temple. This was in Sivan, the summer. John the Baptist was born 9 months later in Nisan, the spring, and the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was 6months younger. Thus Jesus was born in Tishrei – the month of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. From other gospels and Luke we can guesstimate that the reason Joseph and Mary were stuck in a manger in Bethlehem was because the Roman empire had declared a census be taken and each family was to return to the city of his ancestors, to be registered and taxed. Joseph went to Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. Given that it was Sukkot, and Bethlehem is near Jerusalem. You couldn’t find a vacancy and they were stuck in the barn. Most likely Jesus was born on Sukkot.
So everyone is asking why do Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th? The historical answer is because Christianity under the leadership of Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, set out to convert the Pagans. December 23th , as the winter solstice ended , was a Roman holiday of Saturnalia. By making December 25th a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christians could take an already popular holiday and instead of eliminating it coopt itmaking the Christianizing of the population easier.
Jon Sorenson, a writer for Catholic Answers website, states that “Although the date of Jesus’ birth is not given to us in Scripture, there is documented evidence that December 25 was already of some significance to Christians prior to A.D. 354. One example can be found in the writings of Hyppolytus of Rome, who writes that
“For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years.”
What is the connection to Adam? In order to relate the birth of Jesus to the Creation story. For Jesus would have been conceived in Spring which as we know according to Rabbi Yehoshua the world was created in Nisan, Spring time.
OK got it? Jesus was born during Sukkot according to the gospels but his birth was celebrated on December 25 to link his conception to the conception of the world. Hanukah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev to make up for the absence of the celebration of Sukkot that year when the Maccabees were fighting a guerilla war. The Sages of the Talmud, ignored the Sukkot/military victory explanation in order to emphasize a more pacifistic miracle story.
Both religious communities chose to offer different spiritualized mythic versions of history. According to Jon Sorenson quoting Pope Benedict 16, it was to connect Jesus to Adam. Jesus would be the new Adam, creating a new world order. But it also coopted holidays that celebrated the births of gods in other cultures. The idea in Christianity is that without Jesus, you have nothing. You cannot be saved or liberated without going through Jesus. God is made human, and that human’s sacrifice offers atonement for the world. Adam sins, and the world begins, for his expulsion from Eden is the beginning of world history. Jesus dies and the spiritual world for his followers begins. Jesus is heroic in that his death gives life. But only his death. Without it, there is no life. And his story, not so unlike the god birth stories of pagans exhibits a common human desire for a miracle man. Someone to do it for you when you become tired and sick, when you become fatigue and frightened.
Judaism also has a hero story. The Maccabees were victorious and God is involved, but the message is if you want salvation, it is up to us Jews to work together to achieve it. We are responsible for our own salvation. The rabbis de-emphasize the role of the Maccabees in their miracle story but not the role of the victory. In the daily addition to the Amidah during Hanukah, there is no mention of the miracle of the oil that lasts 8 days, only the victory of the minority against the majority, the weak over the strong, the righteous over the wicked. The Maccabees are deemphasized because eventually their descendants become corrupt, just like the Hellenist rulers. They recognize that while we human beings can achieve salvation, we are ultimately fallible and so each generation has to work for its own salvation, fight the same battles against evil and not rely on past victories or on a few heroic individuals.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis in commenting on the differences between Christianity and Judaism, remarked, “You have no excuse in Judaism… you are not born a sinner. You have not inherited any sin in Judaism and you have not transmitted sin. You are the sons and daughters of God, each of you, each of us. No one stands higher than another. Nobody is closer to God than you. And if someone says to you, “that man has closer contact to God”, know that that violates the very essence of Judaism.”
The actual Christmas should be during sukkot. Hanukkah was an actualized Sukkot. Both religious cultures transformed the historical into myth. But how and what motivated the transformations tell us much about the different religious cultures. For us Hanukkah was transformed from a holiday that could have venerated military heroism into an appreciation for the human effort in achieving salvation and the role God plays in that effort.
Hanukah teaches us to oppose the apotheosis, or divinization of any human being. IN 164 BCE we refused to accept Antiochus IV as Epiphanies - Epiphanies means God manifest. And we have continued to refuse to accept the idea that any human should be considered God, just as much as we resist the concept that God needs to become human to truly understand God’s creations.
Yohanan ben Zakai says, if you hold in your hand a seedling, a sapling and people cry out, “Behold! The messiah has come! Look, the messiah is coming!” Get down on your knees and plant the sapling in the earth first before you investigate whether or not the Messiah has come, because that's the way the world is going to be saved. One tree, one planting, one candlelight in the darkness, one act of salvation at a time