I think I have previously mentioned that embracing Humanistic Judaism has freed me to really embrace Jewish culture. But I still carry baggage from my prior Jewish life: growing up in a Conservative synagogue where my family’s membership was actually motivated by ideological choices, studying at one point to be ready to attend JTS as a rabbinical student, and being a rules-based kind of person all combine together to make me still pretty traditional in orientation toward Jewish practice.
Becoming a rabbinical student at IISHJ has already helped me grapple with some of these issues. I imagine I’ll remain personally rather traditional on some things, or will at least try to create middle ground. Wearing a kippah, tallit, and every once in a very, very blue moon, tefillin, all still feel rather naturally part of my Jewish identity. So do the traditional melodies from the prayer services and niggunim.
What has never felt all that important, however, is the High Holidays and “the Sukkot bundle” (Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah). These are, of course, the most fever-pitched Jewish times of year, when you can be sure synagogues will be full and matzo will be available for purchase at your local grocery store. (Grocery stores can be legendarily out-of-touch on what traditional Jewish requirements are for holidays. Extra challah for sale on Passover is my favorite example.)
But when you look at surveys, it turns out the most widely observed Jewish holidays are…Hanukkah and Passover. I think there are any number of possible reasons for this; among them may be that these two holidays are done at home and carry messages that are readily adapted to highly secular, modern Jewish life and work well with the time of year in which they fall in the non-Jewish calendar.
In other words, if you step back, you realize that Jews do Jewish stuff most commonly when non-Jews are doing stuff, too–namely, Christmas and Passover. This, of course, is taken to be an almost existential threat at times: “Hanukkah IS NOT about presents!!! It is NOT a major holiday!!!”
You know what? Things change. The Hanukkah portion of the IISHJ seminar this semester drove that home for me, because I’ve often been very emphatic that “Hanukkah IS NOT a major holiday!”
Hanukkah is a major holiday. It is a major holiday because, despite our prior protestations, we Jews have made Hanukkah important. We’ve done that through our strong observance of it and our weaker observances of Shabbat, Purim, Shavuot, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, and, yes, even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hanukkah is important to Zionists–especially the secular variety–because it provides a model for something other than the Yeshiva bochur, someone who could fight for and prosper in the Land of Israel. It is important for American Jews because it speaks, in a roundabout way, of freedom from foreign oppression. (The Hasmoneans were perfectly happy to impose domestic oppression, and apparently also Roman oppression when it suited them. Ironic, that.)
So I will no longer be caught saying that Hanukkah isn’t important. Judaism is what we Jews have made it. Hanukkah and Passover may be the two best times of the year for Jews to communicate what we’re all about. We shouldn’t be dismissing those opportunities.
A lesson learned.