Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Publicizing Chanukah

One of the most ubiquitous items seen during this time of year is the Menorah. By time of year -I’m not talking about Chanukah. I’m talking about the period between Thanksgiving and New Year usually referred to as the Christmas season.

The reason for this symbol being so prominent is Lubavitch. They use this season as an opportunity to spread the word about the Mitzvah and in the process do some outreach. There are signs all over saying ‘Miracles happen! – Celebrate Chanukah’. There are Menorahs on the tops of cars and vans… and Menorahs erected in public places all over the place – all over the world. If I understand correctly the Lubavitcher Rebbe urged his Chasidim to ‘spread the word’ in this way - as means of Pirsumei Nissa.

Pirsumei Nissa is an Aramaic term loosely meaning ‘publicizing the miracle’. This - the Gemarah tells us - is one of the primary puposes of fulfilling the Mitzvah of lighting the Menorah on Chanukah. In fact one should if possible try and light the Menorah immediately upon nightfall since that is when most people are in the street – coming home from work. The optimal time lasts for about a half an hour. Lighting it then maximizes the numbers of those who will see it. And it is why the Menorah should be placed by a window that faces the street.

Chabad has taken the idea of Pirsumei Nissa and extended it to promoting Chanukah anywhere and everywhere during this time of year. Once we start hearing Christmas music over the radio airwaves – we start seeing Chanukah signs and Menorahs. The crowning feature of this Lubavitch campaign is the public Menorah lighting ceremony. They often feature celebrities or politicians lighting these giant Menorahs usually on public property and in front of many people that are gathered there. These images often even make the local nightly TV newscasts.

I have mixed feelings about this phenomenon. Should Chanukah be an ‘also ran’ to Christmas?

On the one hand it definitely publicizes Chanukah. I can see how an assimilated secular Jew who might not otherwise be Jewishly involved - now has an opportunity to take pride in something Jewish. These stirred feelings can awaken Jewish consciousness followed by a desire to investigate one’s Jewish heritage. It may even instill pride among the more committed Jew who might otherwise feel a bit over-whelmed by the barrage of Christmas ‘cheer’ in the air this time of year.

How many times have I heard a fellow Jew say that they hate this time of year because it reminds them of just how different they are and how ‘American’ Christmas really is. It can easily make one feel a bit less American because they do not celebrate Christmas.

One can say that Chanukah’s coincidental timing with Christmas makes it a wonderful outreach opportunity and we should do everything we can to take advantage of that. As I said - the pride generated by a public Menorah lighting can wake up those dormant Jewish feelings and lead one towards a more committed Jewish life.

Public displays of Jewish religious symbols can also serve to demonstrate the level of religious tolerance in this country.

So I can’t blame Lubavitch for going all out in this project.

But there is another side to this that is not so flattering. There have been backlashes by some Americans – both Jew and gentile - that see public Menorah lightings as an unacceptable mixture of church and State. In some cases it brings out the otherwise dormant anti-Semitic feelings. That can lead to vandalism as was the case recently at a Hillel House and a Chabad house in a Bloomington Indiana. While one should never cower in the face of such threats, one need not necessarily do the kinds of things that give rise to it.

Fortunately incidents like this have also brought out the good that exists in our country. A few years ago on Chanukah in a small American town someone took a baseball bat and broke the front window of a house with a lit Menorah in it. The response of the non Jewish neighbors was heartwarming. Virtually all of the neighbors bought Menorahs and placed them in their windows and lit them. Which is yet another reason why I am so proud to be an American.

How far should Chabad go with these public displays? Is it worth fighting for when there is community opposition? Does it still qualify for outreach when such an event is off-putting to the community in which it is planned?

This happened a few years ago in Seattle’s International airport. Nine Christmas trees were already up when Chabad asked if they could erect a Menorah there. They threatened a lawsuit if they weren’t allowed to do so. Rather than accede to this request airport officials took the Christmas trees down. I'm sure this ‘thrilled’ Seattle citizens!

Was threatening a lawsuit not a Chilul HaShem? Just because we have the constitutional right to ‘free exercise of religion’ in this country doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pursue it at all costs. Is that how we want to portray ourselves? Asserting ourselves where we are not wanted?

Was there any anti-Semitism involved on the part of Seattle’s airport officials? I don’t know. But certainly the antagonistic approach taken by Chabad there was counter-productive - perhaps even turning an intended Kiddush HaShem into a Chilul HaShem.

Is outreach in this way worth the price? Do we really need all those public Menorah lightings to accomplish it? Shouldn’t Chabad at least be more selective as to where they do it and certainly not ‘force’ it upon a community that is opposed?

And finally - is it really fair to call it Pirsumei Nissa when there is absolutely no connection to the real meaning of the term? The Laws of Chanukah are very clear. Public spectacles like this have nothing to do with any of the Mitzvos of Chanukah.

Like I said - I have mixed feelings about it. I do think that it can instill pride in some Jews. But in others it might seem like an opportunistic and vulgar assertion of one of our minor holidays upon a general public who in most cases could not be less interested. And in some cases they might even be resentful of our intrusion into their holiday spirit.

Is it worth it? Does it generate pride or animosity? Do our gentile neighbors resent it as an intrusion or applaud it as part of our American heritage of diversity? I honestly don’t know.