Spiritual Journeys – a spiritual side trip look at ChristmaChannukah by Karen Jacobs


In keeping with our mission of being intentional, of being about learning, spirituality and community, the B’Chavana leadership, along with Rabbi Belgrad, is constantly seeking ways in which we can enrich what B’Chavana brings you. Much of that comes in the forms of events, of content of our Tifilot and Kaballat Shabbat services, Kallah, holiday celebrations and more.  And some of it will come from just simply providing you with thought provoking, enjoyable, and often entertaining reading material, distributed through our blog.

As those that have been to a B’Chavana service know (and this includes both High Holy Days and Shabbat services), one feature we have is Spiritual Journeys. Spiritual Journeys are the sharing of a member’s personal reflection of how they’ve gotten to where they are, and often as well, where they are going.

In discussing this with the Va’ad in a recent meeting, we felt that a great way to start with more enriched content would be to publish, for those that want to share in this way, the Spiritual Journeys of some who have already shared theirs at Services.  It is in no way an intended requirement that if Rabbi asks you to share your spiritual journey, that we will turn it into a post like this, but just an additional opportunity for sharing with the community. And, if you’re not a fan of public speaking but would like to share yours, let Rabbi know and we could possibly include it in this space.

Finishing the preamble, Karen Jacobs was asked by Rabbi to share her journey.  She felt, given the season that instead of a full view of her journey (which we all hope she will share in full form!), she instead took a side trip down the path of an enjoyable look at how Christmas and Channukah have many similarities. She shared this last Saturday in our Tifilot service.

Enjoy.  (And Karen, thank you for sharing it so graciously with us, both in voice and in written word form.)

Stew Campbell, B’Chavana Va’ad/Communications

From Karen Jacobs:

SPIRITUAL SIDE TRIP – The ChristmaChannuka Dilemma

So Rabbi asked me to talk about my Spiritual Journey.

Thing is, while I was making gingerbread holiday cookies and listening to my favourite Christmas music and thinking about my Chanukah party it was kind of tough for me to back up and focus on the whole of my history and journey.

So instead: This is more of a Spiritual Side Trip, which I like to think of as an example of how I journey. Each year about this time, someone I know starts talking about the ChristmaChanukah “Dilemma” and whether Chanukah has become “just the Jewish Christmas” and how we should all be wringing our hands.

I think I’ve shared with this group before, I didn’t grow up Jewish…as part of an interfaith couple, I’ve participated a lot of discussions (not all pleasant) about this topic. It’s impossible for me to put all my thoughts together coherently into writing, but a few key reactions:

Asking whether Chanukah is “just the Jewish Christmas” is really asking us to consider “the true meaning of Chanukah,” which is of course also a way to ask about the meaning of Judaism in our lives. These are great things to talk about, and what better way to start the conversation this time of year than to do a compare/contrast between Chanukah and Christmas? But to do justice to this question, we also have to be careful with our assumptions about “the true meaning of Christmas.” Which *isn’t* an easy thing to get your arms around in contemporary America. You need to think about “which” Christmas you’re comparing to:

–the secular holiday?
–the retail/economic/consumerist phenomenon it has become in America
(and increasingly, around the globe)?
–the pure religious celebration of (Christian) God’s greatest gift to
mankind, a miracle?
–the (most likely pagan in origin) traditions that have become integral to
its celebration, involving trees, and the celebration of light and warmth and
bounty? –the (not pagan, but pulled from many diverse cultural sources and mythologies) other traditions that have become integral to its celebration, involving family togetherness, giving and receiving gifts, St. Nicholas/Santa, special holiday music, holiday foods, holiday stories, holiday colours and clothing? NET: Depending on which of these Christmases I’m using as a comparison point, there are many different answers to the question!

Which doesn’t even begin to get into the question of “which Chanukah?” since I’m also pretty sure that both Jewish leaders and Jewish communities  over time have reinterpreted and re-directed the emphasis of this holiday in response to societal context and needs. It’s worth keeping in mind that both holidays have powerful stories behind them – different stories, one military in nature, one almost fairytale – but both are, upon reflection, highly political stories and at times throughout history, also highly politicized. In our personal journeys, it’s important to keep the “spin” in mind and in perspective.

The discussions I’ve had in the past which are unpleasant are those in which I feel people oversimplify and reduce their definition of Christmas to its most public, media-driven, consumerist common denominator, e.g. “Christmas is about buying stuff and getting presents.” The discussions which have been the most enlightening, and fun, are those in which the group has been able to look without defensiveness at how much these two holidays do, in fact share… and where they differ, why/how? I’ve perhaps tipped my hand, but for me, the two holidays share a great deal, and both are quite beautiful and meaningful.

–There is celebration of light at the winter solstice — literally the time of year when nights are longest: Chanukah candles, Christmas candles/lights and the Christian symbolism of Jesus as a light among mankind, the symbolism of the star of Bethlehem lighting the way to his birthplace.

–There is celebration of warmth in the dead of winter — the special foods each holiday embraces are warm, both gather around candles or oil lamps  – The ChristmaChanukah Dilemma(Chanukah) or in the case of Christmas, the fireplace or the tree (wood = source of heat).

–There is a celebration of hope and a miracle – for Chanukah, the story of
the oil that burned eight days and sustained the Maccabees; for Christmas,
a miraculous birth, and the gift of God’s only son to save mankind.

–There is a celebration of family – neither holiday explicitly demands it, and yet both implicitly require it…you cannot play a dreidel game alone, nor can you exchange gifts with yourself. Songs sung, stories told and special foods prepared all make most sense when they are shared, not when they are experienced alone. And it’s interesting that the mythology of both holidays feature family: The Maccabeean Brothers, The Christian Mother Mary/Father Joseph/Baby Jesus.

–And yes, there are gifts. I know it’s popular, almost de rigueur, to bemoan the creep of consumerism into Chanukah, whose traditions and stories have historically not included gift-giving…that is, until Jews in America found themselves “competing with Christmas” and over time and with the happy cooperation of capitalism, increased their emphasis on gifts. I do bemoan it (while at the same time I give in to it, let’s be honest…) for both Chanukah AND for Christmas. The traditions of Christmas, as I grew up understanding them, were not as much about GETTING gifts, but rather GIVING them. The religious symbolism goes back to God’s gift (of his only son); the diverse Christian cultural stories and myths had much to do with behaving (being good girls and boys) and giving as a way to emulate Jesus and/or Saints (in the Catholic tradition).

And to the extent that the *giving* of gifts reminds us to think of others before ourselves, to appreciate others and to show that appreciation, while the *receiving* of gifts reminds us to be grateful to and for the loved ones in our lives, I think there is still something beautiful and worthwhile and yes, spiritual in this too.

So, I not only think there’s no turning back (i.e. bemoan as you might, Chanukah in America has been reconstructed to include gifts…) but I think there *can* be real value in accepting with wisdom and clarity the adoption of this part of the meaning of Christmas into our Chanukah. The challenge then, for those who celebrate Chanukah (and for that matter, those who celebrate Christmas), is how to find/keep the focus on the spiritual and our values in the giving and receiving of gifts — i.e. how do we make sure we’re celebrating appreciation, love, gratitude, spiritualism VERSUS greed, materialism, consumerism? Can we choose “which Christmas” we’re competing with? Accepted wisdom in the sports and business world is that competition makes you stronger — can Chanukah in America be strengthened by this new tradition, or are its other values simply weakened?

I hope this helps you think about these holidays. I hope you’ll all be at our home in another week for BChavana’s Chanukah celebration – I’ll try to keep the Christmas music off.

Love, and Happy Holidays of every kind, to all of you —



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