“Whose Are You?” Hanukkah Reflections

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from? Whose are you? (Rev. Victoria Safford)

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday December 21, 2014.

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Today’s sermon is about how you know who your people are. Who do you belong to and what does that ask of you? I want to start with a reading from one of our esteemed ministers, Rev. Victoria Safford:

“Whose are you?

Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not?

Whose are you?

Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch?

Whose are you?

Who is within your circle of concern?

Whose are you?

To whom are you responsible, accountable? Whose care is yours to provide?

Whose are you?

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from?

Whose are you?

When you walk out of your room, out of your house, into the sunlight of the day, to whom in this wide world do you belong? Where is your allegiance, by whom are you called?

Whose are you?

At the end of the day, through the longest night, in the valley of the shadow of death

and despair, who holds your going out and coming in, your waking and your sleeping?

Who, what, holds you in the hollow of its hand?

Whose are you?”

I imagine that one of the reasons today’s children’s story, “A Chanukah Noel” by Sharon Jennings was published is because so many Jewish parents have experienced their children begging to be part of Christmas. In the Western world, Christmas is huge! There are so many traditions – food, music, Christmas trees, lights, and of course, Santa Claus and presents! Christmas has a strong allure.

Can you imagine a child seeing that and not wanting to be a part of it? Like Colette’s parents, many Jewish parents search their hearts when their children come to them, and they decide to say no to Christmas because of what it would mean to say yes. Given the complicated relationship between Judaism and Christianity, with the historical dominance of Christianity and the long history of Jewish oppression, allowing Christmas a place in their children’s lives would be crossing a line. It would be betraying who they are.

But I imagine it would be very difficult, especially if, like Collette, your children are in a school where they are a minority and all the other kids are in full Christmas mode. For most children, acceptance by their friends is one of the most important things. Being different in any way is hard. I can imagine that as a parent, knowing that setting this boundary makes life harder for your child, at least in the short term, would be hard. But in the long run, it could also help them to understand who they and who their people are.

One of the reasons that the Jewish Celebration of Hanukkah was raised up as a prominent Jewish holiday in the last century was to help parents deal with this dilemma. After a while, just saying no to Christmas wasn’t enough. There had to be a creative way to respond to the very real needs of their children and remain faithful to Judaism and the Jewish people at the same time. Over time, this minor Jewish holiday has organically evolved into a significant tradition. It’s really the perfect holiday to respond to the all-encompassing power of Christmas because the story behind the holiday is about surviving as a people. Hanukkah offers a precious opportunity to teach Jewish children who they are.

According to the story, some 2500 years ago the nation of Israel was occupied by the Assyrian Greek Empire and the empire did not look favorably upon the Jewish religion and culture.   They saw it as a threat to their ability to rule the land. They shut down temples, and they banned the practice of Judaism and the speaking of their language.

A small band of Israelites, the Maccabees, finally had enough. They started a war of resistance to throw out the Greeks and with the help of some of the neighboring countries, who also wanted the Greeks out, they really made some progress!

In one battle, they regained control of a Jewish temple that the Greeks had ransacked. When they entered the temple they were heartbroken to see that the temple had been ransacked. Most heartbreaking of all, the temple lamp, which should burn without ceasing, was extinguished. To see that lamp dark and empty was a powerful symbol of what they feared most – the end of their people. Lighting it would mean that Judaism could be saved from extinction. So they lit the temple flame and began to make new oil, even knowing that it would take eight days for the new oil to be ready, even knowing that the flame would probably die out before that oil was ready.

The miracle is that it didn’t. The flame stayed lit for 8 days until the new oil was ready. This signified that their faith could survive any assault and that their people would persevere through any struggle.

In the 20th century, this minor celebration was given a new importance as a way to help Jewish children celebrate their Jewish identity during the Christmas season. There are special songs and special prayers. There are special foods and games. There is the central symbol of Hanukkah, the menorah, with its eight candles and a ninth from which to light the rest. And… there is a small present for every child, every night, for the eight nights of Hanukkah! Top that Christmas!

But the truth is, Jewish parents wanted their children to be able to look in the mirror and see whose bones shaped their faces, and whose blood ran in their veins, and whose people, stretching back in time, beyond memory, they came from.

Hanukkah has become especially important in the United States for another reason. Although there isn’t a dangerous empire trying to kill their language and their history, there is always the allure of assimilation. Fewer and fewer Jewish children actively practice Judaism when they grow up and intermarriage is more and more common.   There are real fears that in the west, Judaism is in serious decline. It is a prominent subject that is talked about all the time. The question that is asked over and over is, “How do we keep our children?”

One of the ways that you can learn a lot about any culture or any religion or any family is to find out what people worry about for their children.   Many Americans are learning, for instance, that in the African American community the question many parents ask themselves everyday, is, “How do I keep my children safe?” In the Hispanic community, many parents ask themselves, “Will my children ever be truly accepted as part of this country?” These questions tell us about the truth of their lives. They tell us something about their identity as a people.

There is a commonality between the identity of these three peoples – Jewish, Hispanic, Black – and that is of a people who have suffered and their identity is kindled in the shared experience of suffering.   But the challenge for many American Jewish children is that the suffering is a memory, stories that are told to them by their elders, whereas for many Black and Hispanic children, the suffering is now. It tells them, often painfully, whom they belong to. For a people under that kind of pressure, knowing whom you belong to is often literally about knowing where it is safe so that you can survive physically and spiritually.

I wonder about those of us whose identity is not kindled in the experience of shared suffering. How do we know who we belong to? Is it harder for us to know who our people are and to feel that truth in our bones?

One of the results of this congregation’s decision to sell its building six months ago is that many of us are wondering whose we are. When you live in the same place for more than two decades, it becomes woven into your bones and it feels like it must be part of the blood in your veins. Where does this church live now? Whose are we? We are finding a new way to be a people.

This church will probably own its own building again someday, but it’s going to take a while. I find myself wondering how we can be a people in this moment, in this time.  I’m reminded of the story of the Israelites, after they left the slavery of Egypt and wandered the desert for 40 years. As long as they focused on what they didn’t have, they stumbled. When they embraced their desert life, they found who they were as a people. They became stronger and stronger and stronger. They echoed the Hanukkah story that would become part of their tradition a thousand years later. They lit in themselves the temple flame and found new life.

I know it’s going to take a while to settle into our new reality, but my hope is that we are becoming a new kind of people, unified by the mission of our liberal religious faith tradition, which is that this world can be transformed by the values of equality, justice, unity, compassion, and forgiveness, that we together are agents for peacemaking in our world. If we can see this time as not just an in-between time, meant to be left as quickly as possible, but as the best place we can be, rich with possibility, that is how we light the temple flame.

I find myself thinking of Collette and her parents and the beautifully creative way that they responded to her deep need by offering Christmas to another family while keeping in place the boundaries for who they were as a people. Collette’s family actually recreated the Hanukkah story. This time the temple was an impoverished French family. They lit the temple flame by generously sharing Christmas with them. When the French family invited them in, a flame that could have burned only 1 night, now burned for 8. For that one evening, and who knows, maybe beyond, these two families became friends, the kind of friends that sustain one through good times and bad. That’s the miracle of Hanukkah.

When you go home today, I’m going to ask you to try something. Find a candle, any candle, it could be a real candle or a virtual candle on your phone and sit with it someplace that is a place of peace for you. Light that candle and focus on the question, “Whose are you?”

“Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not?

Who are the ones who make a force field you can almost touch?

Whose blood runs in your veins? To whom in this wide world do you belong? Where is your allegiance, by whom are you called?

Whose are you?”

As you live into these answers, a flame that you may fear will burn only 1 night will miraculously burn 8, and you will be living the Hanukkah story of perseverance and hope.

For those of you who celebrate Hanukkah, may this be a beautiful time for you, with family, friends, held by a rich history and faith. For all of us, may the spirit of life be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

This sermon may be shared and reproduced provided credit is given to Rev. Krista Taves.  Sermons are a shared experience, part of the ongoing dialogue between minister and congregation.  They are meant to be heard rather than read, and that influences the style in which they are written and presented here.

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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5 Responses to “Whose Are You?” Hanukkah Reflections

  1. Purple Morgan says:

    While this is certainly interesting, there are those of us in the Jewish tradition who see the contemporary re-invention of Chanukah to be nothing short of a compromise, a betrayal of the real message in an attempt to morph Chanukah into a Christmas substitute. Personally, I think it’s sad to see what Chanukah has become today. The real problem, it seems to me, is how our society has allowed Christmas and its ensuing commercialism to take over EVERYTHING. Including being a government-approved holiday in a country that is allegedly built on separation of church and state. But I realize I am a tiny voice in a loud marketplace.

    • kristataves says:

      Purple Morgan, I really appreciate you sharing this perspective. I would be interested in hearing what you believe to be the real message of Chanukah. Are you comfortable sharing that? I’d like to hear more.

      • Purple Morgan says:

        My apologies for the length of my reply. I have tried to be concise. ;-D

        Most people don’t realize that the “celebration” and observance of Hanukkah has changed over time. In fact, it has changed drastically.

        Ironically, the message of Hanukkah is one of anti-assimilation. It is rooted in the story of how the Maccabees steadfastly refused to follow in the ways of the dominant culture. And yet, what has become of Hanukkah?

        Hanukkah has moved from being a very, very minor Jewish festival scarcely mentioned in most American Jewish sources, to being one of the most popular and widely observed holidays on the American Jewish calendar. The driving force behind this was the very thing that speaks most loudly to assimilation: Christian Christmas traditions.

        That Christmas became increasingly central in 19th-century America, the day for giving gifts to children, eventually becoming a national holiday, is well established. Because of the over commercialization of Christmas, Hanukkah was infused with a vast new energy, in the hope that it might compete with Christmas or at least allow Jewish children to see that they are as fortunate as their Christian neighbors. So the ideas of the “new American understanding of Hanukkah” have grown in tandem with Christmas, and in many ways as a response to it.

        The new emphasis and American re-interpretation of Hanukkah allowed American Jews to participate as equals in what came to be known as the “holiday season.”

        For example, giving gifts was never a traditional part of Hanukkah. The trend of giving Hanukkah gifts really took off in the 1950s. At this time, child psychologists as well as rabbis started promoting gifts as a way to make post-Holocaust Jewish kids happy to be Jewish, rather than sad about missing out on Christmas. “Christmas envy” remains a concern for many Jewish parents today.

        In fact, Hanukkah is not even mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabees, which Jews do not accept as scripture. Many non-Jews (and many assimilated Jews) think of this holiday as “the Jewish Christmas,” adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration.

        Yet, the original story of Hanukkah is all about Temple sacrifice and resisting assimilation and ethnic annihilation. It is not about the miraculous victory of the Jews over the Greeks, nor is it about the miraculous oil. It is a simple celebration for the return to sacrifice in the reclaimed, restored, and rededicated Temple.

        Everything changed after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Sacrifice was no longer possible and the understanding of how to worship G!d shifted from sacrifice to study and prayer. It was then that the rabbis introduced the miracle of the oil and focused on the laws surrounding the lighting of the menorah, so Hanukkah shifted its focus to the menorah and candles and the miracle of the oil.

        Hanukkah gelt has an interesting origin. Most Jews point back to the 18th century for the introduction of gelt, as a way to surreptitiously pay Jewish teachers for religious education on the sly at a time when it was forbidden by law to do so.

        However, Hanukkah gelt actually dates back to the very first Hanukkah festival celebrated by the Maccabees. It comes from the then common practice of taking war booty–when the Jews destroyed the Greek armies, they took weapons, armor, horses, and coins (I Maccabees 3:41). These coins were distributed to victorious soldiers, widows, and orphans of the dead, as well as the general population, including children. So gelt is actually a token of war booty.

        Hanukkah as a holiday has always been a “celebration” of sorts about the interplay between Judaism and the dominant culture of the time. In his book “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays”, Irvin Greenberg says, “Hanukkah is the paradigm of the relationship between acculturation and assimilation where each generation has interpreted Hanukkah in its own image, speaking to its own needs.” He discusses how the story of Hanukkah began because of the blending of Greek and Eastern cultures. Hellenism attracted the Jewish elite, and there were some Jews who favored aggressive assimilation. Gift giving is the prime example of a custom that was, and still is, borrowed from the dominant culture.

        Gift giving was generally practiced in Greek culture during the time of the book of Maccabees. There are three examples in the books of Maccabees that describe Greeks engaging in the practice of gift giving. (1) King Anthiochus’ officers tell Mattathias they will give him gold, silver, and gifts if he makes a pagan sacrifice (I Maccabees 2:15-28). (2) King Antiochus realizes that his wealth diminished during the war, and he laments that he will no longer be able to give gifts the way he used to (I Maccabees 3:30). (3) The King of Persia turns a holy site into a shrine and uses the money he makes from it to give gifts to his friends (II Maccabees 1:34-35). Each of these examples speak to the fact that gift giving was a prevalent practice in Greek culture during the time of the story of Hanukkah. But the point is that clearly, gift giving was a practice of the dominant culture into which Jews were being forced to assimilate, not a Jewish custom.

        It is therefore bitterly ironic that Hanukkah, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation into the dominant culture and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on the Jewish calendar.

        Does this help?

  2. Purple Morgan says:

    I just want to clarify that I enjoy a good conversation about spiritual matters, and to me, that’s what this is. I am neither offended nor upset by those who take a different perspective on Chanukah. So please don’t think I am at all upset with your sermon. I was just attempting to begin a discussion from a different perspective. I meant to send my comment to your email, but flubbed that up. My apologies.

    Also, upon further reflection, it occurs to me that the real message of Chanukah has more in common with UU principles than not. UU is definitely “counter cultural” in all the best ways, standing in the gap as it were between the dominant culture and deeply held principles against any one culture or belief system or such to be the end all and be all. Might does not always make right, as we all too well know. The loudest voice does not always hold more truth than the still small voice.

    It seems to me that to be UU is to be for equality to the extent that assimilation is unnecessary and certainly never forced, embracing both/and rather than pushing an either/or black-and-white agenda. Rather than a “great melting pot,” UU embraces the metaphor of a “great salad bowl,” where we each have our own unique voice and flavor to add without congealing into one huge tasteless, formless lump of sameness.

    So, to me, the real meaning of Chanukah, before it became homogenized into one big pot of American Christmas-and-Christmas-alternatives, speaks loudly to that part of what it means to be UU in the midst of one big pot of homogenized dominant culture, where talk is cheap and actions don’t matter. To be UU is to turn that on its head. In a similar way, to embrace the true meaning of Chanukah is to stand the dominant culture on its head, and sadly, that it not what has been happening to Chanukah over the past few decades as it has succumbed to the pressures of the dominant culture. Which is incredibly ironic. Does that make any sense?

    I am sorry to be taking your time with this. I hope it has been at least as positive an experience for you as it has been for me to reflect upon and give voice to.

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