Chanukah and Christmas: chocolate coins and presents as we celebrate God in the world

On Tuesday evening Jews all over the world will light chanukiot, the 8 branched candelabra used to celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It commemorates the regaining of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE, and its rededication after the occupying Seleucids had defiled it while imposing Hellenic culture over its empire, prohibiting any other religions.  The story of the successful revolt by a small group of pious Jews against the large military power of its day has a touch of the miraculous, and sure enough the narratives first found in the apocryphal first two Books of Maccabees have evolved in their retelling, well beyond the original event.

The dark threads of the story are eclipsed by the reframing in the Talmud, which saw Chanukah as less of a human story of oppression and guerrilla warfare, and more as a demonstration of the divine presence in history. So today we celebrate the miracle of oil staying alight for 8 days rather than one, and we eat foods cooked in oil and play games of chance that refer to the miracle, we give presents each night and generally make merry with friends and family, and think very little of the origin of the rebellion against assimilation with the dominant power.

The date of Chanukah – 25th Kislev – moves around the calendar a little but is always around Christmas. And the date is not the only similarity. Both are festivals rooted in pagan winter solstice where lighting the surrounding darkness is central. Both use tree symbolism – the Chanukiah is based on the Temple Menorah, which bible describes using botanical terms – clearly a Tree of Life, while Christmas uses evergreens – holly, ivy, fir trees – to proclaim Everlasting Life. Both stories are set in times of oppression – the Seleucid Empire and the Roman one, and both embed hope that human oppression is vanquished by divine activity. Both signal God’s presence in the world and both stories have a mythic quality of redemption.

And there are other similarities. In modern times the minor post-biblical festival of Chanukah has taken on some less wholesome aspects of Christmas in a bid to compete for Jewish attention.  Both now struggle against commercialisation overpowering their religious message, both become overindulgent. On Chanukah the ‘gelt’ that began as a way to give children small change to use when playing dreidl quickly grew into a present every evening, as more assimilated communities noticed the joy that Christmas presents brought. Chocolate coins took over. What can you do when your child looks at all the glittering baubles with awe and desire? The festival marking rejecting the dominant culture has assimilated it perfectly. As my young son said to his friend when discussing their different Decembers – “What? ONLY ONE night of Christmas? Poor you”

 This article first published in the London Evening Standard on 11th December 2017

“What a rabbi said to the politicians” or “Good Governance and Community leadership: texts for reflection for the Council of the London Borough of Merton”

 I was honoured recently to be asked to open the prayers for the first meeting of Council of the London Borough of Merton. The new Mayor Krystal Miller has decided to invite members of the different faith communities to take this role in her mayoral year, and I was excited and happy to be the first to wear the new interfaith insignia for this event.

I chose not to simply say a prayer, or to invoke a divine blessing, but to offer some texts on governance and community for the councillors to reflect upon, and here they are:

“In the Mishnah, the earliest attempt to codify Jewish law, we have a tractate called Pirkei Avot, meaning something like, the “Chapters of Fundamental Principles”, which contains material dating from around 200 BCE till 200 CE and concerns itself with ethical ideology. Traditionally we study it from Pesach (commemorating the Exodus from slavery) till either Shavuot (Festival of Revelation of Torah) or until Rosh Hashanah, (The Day of Judgment and the New Year)

The book is a kind of manual of good practise in both interpersonal relationships and governance, and I would like to share some of its insights:

Based on a verse in  Jeremiah, (29v7) written in the 6th century BCE:

ז  וְדִרְשוּ אֶת־שְׁלוֹם הָעיר אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַֽעֲדָהּ אֶל־יְהֹוָה כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ יִֽהְיה לָכֶם שָׁלֽוֹם:

7 And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to live (be carried away captive,) and pray to the Eternal for it; for in the peace of that city shall you have peace.

The Mishnah tells us “Rabbi Chanina taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without fear of governmental authorities people would swallow each other alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2).

ב רַבִּי חֲנִינָא סְגַן הַכֹּהֲנִים אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי מִתְפַּלֵּל בִּשְׁלוֹמָהּ שֶׁל מַלְכוּת, שֶׁאִלְמָלֵא מוֹרָאָהּ, אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ חַיִּים בָּלָעוּ.

So for more than two and a half thousand years, Jews have had the tradition of praying for the welfare of the monarch and government of the countries in which they lived, well aware that without good government, anarchy and danger will prevail : “without good governmental authorities, people would swallow each other alive”

As well as the importance of good governance, these sages also knew about the importance of community: (2:5)

הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרוֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר, וְאַל תַּאֲמֵן בְּעַצְמָךְ עַד יוֹם מוֹתָךְ, וְאַל תָּדִין אֶת חֲבֵרָךְ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ,

Hillel said, do not separate yourself  from the community, do not trust yourself until the day you die, do not judge your friend until you reach his place…

And Hillel’s contemporary Shammai taught (1:15)

טו שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמוֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

“Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”

Hillel also taught about the importance that each individual take responsibility for themselves, but also that we take responsibility for each other, and that this is an imperative: (1:14)

יד הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:

1:14 “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And, if I am for myself only, then what am I? And, if not now, when?”

Hillel, was active between 30 BCE and around 10 CE. His formulation of the golden rule “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary” (Shab. 31a)” is a masterful one. If we all behaved in a way we would like others to behave to us, life would be far more pleasant.

Another sage, ben Azzai formulated it slightly differently, with a reminder of the importance of each human being:

ג הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם:

4:3. “He (the son of Azzai) used to say, do not be disrespectful of any person and do not be dismissive of any thing, for there is no person who does not have their hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.”

I would like to end this study with the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: (2:16)

טז הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

Rabbi Tarfon (70CE) taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (2:16).

So what do we learn from this two thousand year old collection that is helpful for us today? Well firstly that there is, as Kohelet says

 מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה הוּא שֶׁיִּֽהְיֶה וּמַה־שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂה הוּא שֶׁיֵּֽעָשֶׂה וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ:  יֵשׁ דָּבָר שֶׁיֹּאמַר רְאֵה־זֶה חָדָשׁ הוּא כְּבָר הָיָה לְעֹֽלָמִים אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִלְּפָנֵֽנוּ:  אֵין זִכְרוֹן לָרִֽאשֹׁנִים וְגַם לָֽאַֽחֲרֹנִים שֶׁיִּֽהְיוּ לֹֽא־יִֽהְיֶה לָהֶם זִכָּרוֹן עִם שֶׁיִּֽהְיוּ לָֽאַֽחֲרֹנָֽה:

 That which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there a thing whereof it is said: ‘See, this is new’?–it has been already, in the ages which were before us. There is no remembrance of them of former times; neither shall there be any remembrance of them of latter times that are to come, among those that shall come after.

And secondly that for people to live well and peacefully and gain in prosperity and feel secure, they need both good governance that wields its power well, and they need good community, where people take responsibility for themselves and for each other.

This is my prayer for this Council, as it deliberates and balances different goods on behalf of the people of Merton. This council will have to make difficult decisions, to stretch its resources to the limit, to find a way to serve its different communities who will have competing needs and desires.  I pray that at all times you remember the importance of respect for all people, remembering that there is no person who does not have their hour. I pray that you never set yourselves apart from the community, that you never stop questioning yourselves, that you never feel distant from the real lived experience of your constituents. I pray that your governance brings security and settled peace to all who live in your boundaries. I hope you keep before you always the need to say little but to do much, and always to meet each other with a friendly face.

Every Saturday morning Jews pray for the welfare of the Government with the words V’chol mi she’oskin b’tzorcehy tzibbur be’emunah,  Hakadosh baruch hu yeshalem sechoram,  V’yishlach beracha v’hatzlacha bechol ma’asey y’deyhem

“All those who are occupied faithfully with the needs of the community may the Almighty pay their reward. May God send blessing prosperity and success in all the deeds of their hands. And let us say Amen”