The Courage to Be Different

Dear Friends,


As we have begun to discuss, many Jews in the State of Israel have no understanding of their own unique spiritual culture; thus, they have developed an obsessive desire to imitate the cultures of other nations. Hillel Halkin is considered to be one of the leading secular intellectuals in Israel, and in his book, “Letters to an American Jewish Friend,” he wrote the following critique of this trend towards assimilation within secular Israeli society:


“We have developed a society whose one demand from everything, from a philosophical idea to the label of a product on a shelf, is that it bear the seal of that outside world that we have appointed the arbiter of our values and tastes, as paupers once indentured themselves to a master when they could no longer earn their own bread to eat.” (Letter Five)


The following excerpts from a recent article by Matthew Wagner in the Jerusalem Post (Kislev 25) discuss one of the latest examples of this trend:




Santa Clauses, Christmas trees and reindeer are nowhere near as ubiquitous as Hanukka candles here during this holiday season, but they are definitely making inroads. As more Israelis spend time abroad and the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not Jewish, make their presence felt, malls and shopping centers throughout the country are using Christmas symbols to lure consumers.


Christmas symbols are no longer relegated solely to Arab Christian cities such as Nazareth and Bethlehem or to the Russian-language press and television.
Nor are the country’s foreign workers – the Filipinos, the Romanians and the Sudanese – the only target market. Perhaps the most blatant example is a major fair slated to begin Tuesday in Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin neighborhood at a huge mansion called Beit Amudim. Billed as an end-of-the-year sale “in the style of many large cities throughout the world,” the fair will market clothing, food, wine, toys and various gifts. A mishmash of Jewish and Christian symbols – Judah Macabee and Santa Claus, Christmas trees and hanukkiot – will greet shoppers.

…Tamir Peled, the owner of the Marzipan Museum, whose products are under the kashrut supervision of the Lower Galilee Rabbinate, said that this Christmas there has been a sharp rise in demand from Jewish Israelis for marzipan in Christmas shapes, such as Santa Claus. “In the past all our requests were for Jewish symbols like Magen David, shofars, apples in honey and the tablets of the Ten Commandments,” said Peled.


“But recently Israelis who have lived abroad or who are influenced by American TV want to celebrate Christmas. So far we have not gotten any orders to make marzipan crosses. But maybe that will happen, too. …Celebrating only Hanukka set us apart, makes us different. People don't want to feel that way.




The following recollections from my childhood can serve as a response to those Jews in Israel who are starting to celebrate Christmas because they do not want to be “different”:


It was the winter of 1952. I was six years old, and my mother took me on a walk around our neighborhood in downtown Brooklyn, New York City. The stores were all lit up for the Christian holiday, and in each store window, there was a Christmas tree prominently displayed.
”Mommy,” I asked, “Can we also have a Christmas tree in our house?” My mother was surprised by my request, and she responded: “As you know, Jeffrey, we are Jewish, and Jewish people do not celebrate Christmas. It is not our holiday.” 
The next night, I was in for a surprise. My parents called me and my younger sister, Dorothy, into the living room, and they pointed to a small candelabra. “This is a Chanukah Menorah,” my father explained, “and the Jewish holiday of Chanukah has begun.” He gave a brief summary of the Chanukah story, and then lit the Menorah.
This was my first Chanukah celebration. When I grew older, I was told that my question concerning the Christmas tree had inspired my parents to begin the celebration of Chanukah in our home. Until then, my parents had never explained to us that we had Jewish holidays of our own.


Both of my parents were progressive social activists who were involved in a variety of causes for the betterment of society; moreover, the conversation in our home centered on the evils of prejudice and other universal concerns. My request for the Christmas tree, however, evoked in my parents a sense of Jewish pride, and they realized that they had neglected an aspect of our education. By bringing the Chanukah Menorah into our home, they were conveying to me and my sister that we had a unique identity, and that we should not be ashamed to be “different.” As the years went by, our family began to celebrate other Jewish holidays, and most of our non-Jewish neighbors respected us for honoring our Jewish beliefs and traditions.


As I began to study Torah, I gained a deeper understanding of why Christmas is not a Jewish holiday; thus, when some Christians would later ask me why Jews do not accept the Christmas message that Jesus is the Lord and Savior, I would give them the following answer: We, the people of the Torah, do not deify any human being, including a Jewish human being, for we are to only serve Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One. This is because the Divine Voice proclaimed to us at Mount Sinai, “You shall not have other gods before My Presence” (Exodus 20:3). Our Torah also states, “Know it today and take it to heart repeatedly that Hashem alone is God; in heaven above and on earth below – there is none other” (Deuteronomy 4:39).  It is therefore forbidden for us to deify any object, force, or being, including a human being; in fact, the Torah tells us that “God is not a man” (Numbers 23:19).


Yes, Christians claim that Jesus is the Lord and Savior; however, Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, proclaimed to our people:


“I, only I, am God, and there is no Savior aside from Me.” (Isaiah 43:11).


Chanukah reminds us of the Divine light which illuminates the path of our people; thus, when missionaries proclaim to us the traditional Christmas message that “Jesus is the light of the world,” we can tell them that long before Jesus was born, our people viewed Hashem as the Source of our light. As King David prayed to Hashem:


“By Your light shall we see light.” (Psalm 36:10).


And when they tell us that without the Christian belief in Jesus, the human soul is dark and damned, we can tell them that long before Jesus was born, King Solomon taught our people:


“The soul of the human being is the lamp of Hashem (Proverbs 20:27).


May we be blessed with Shabbat Shalom and a light-filled Chanukah.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


A Related Teaching:


Torah – the Divine Teaching – is light, as King Solomon wrote: “Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23). In this spirit, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin interprets the words, “By Your light shall we see light” (Psalm 36:10), as a description of light-giving Torah study. Through the initial light that we gain when we begin to study Torah, we merit the perception of an even greater Torah light which is awaiting us at the next stage of our sacred study, and we therefore yearn to learn more Torah in order to gain this greater light.


Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin was a leading sage who was the outstanding disciple of the Vilna Gaon, as well as the founder of the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1802. The above explanation appears in his work Ruach Chaim – a commentary on Pirkei Avos. The explanation is found in his comments on Pirkei Avos 6:1.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision