As we reach the season of Chanukah this year, our leaders in many of our synagogues will be discussing what we’ve come to call “The December Dilemma.” Chanukah can become a difficult time of year for us if our children and we are comparing our December holiday to our Christian friends’ celebrations during this time. The two holidays have absolutely nothing to do with one another in terms of theology, however, in today’s material world the holidays have become intertwined as an interfaith “festival” of buying. If we fully embrace the materialistic notions of Chanukah, and neglect to consider the roots of our holiday, we have completely lost the essence of what Chanukah represents.
When we focus on the true meaning of Chanukah, we come back to the very root of the word. Chanukah itself means rededication. Our December holiday reminds us to celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is significant that the word is rededication rather than dedication. Of course, the Beit Hamikdash had already been dedicated and it makes sense that as it was dedicated once again, it becomes a rededication. But as a spiritual commentary, the word rededication allows us to look within ourselves and see where we have not been as Jewishly dedicated as we would have liked to be.
In the prayer Al Hanisim, we are also reminded to celebrate the rededication of our people to the very idea of Judaism. We recite, “The iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah.” Later in the prayer, we say, “Your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Chanukah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name.” In order to rededicate themselves, our ancestors had to first realize that they had lost sight of what was important. Once they had confronted their own failings, they could begin again to dedicate themselves through physical labor and spiritual endeavor in the holy Temple.
This year, may our December dilemma be, “How will we rededicate ourselves to living a Jewish life and living in the way that God wants us to?” and, “During our Festival of Lights, how will we rekindle the flames within our souls?”
I know that my own answers to these questions are unusual. Having recently returned from a journey to Rome with 19 other Reform cantors from all across North America to sing in the Italian State Basilica, my thoughts have been focused on interfaith relations and in particular, Jewish-Catholic relations. I have been formally involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue for 10 years through the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. My favorite thing about interfaith dialogue is that it always brings me back to my own faith with a deeper appreciation and understanding of our traditions.
Our journey was full of wonderful experiences and also some disappointments. While discussing some of the minor disappointments of the trip, Rabbi Mark Winer, a chair of the International Interfaith Task Force of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, responded to our regret. He reminded us to view our concert and interactions with Vatican officials as the beginning of a journey.
I returned home to hear news that Pope Benedict XVI had published personal comments calling Pope Pius a “great, righteous” man who “saved more Jews than anyone else.” These comments cause pain to most Jewish people. My response to the comments this time was that I will continually rededicate myself to the important work of interfaith dialogue, no matter how difficult it becomes.
The last day of Chanukah marks the dedication of the altar in the holy Temple. In some communities this is seen as the end of the High Holiday season and people wish each other “Gmar chatimah tovah (may you be sealed for good).” As we enter this Chanukah season, may we confront our obstacles with the strength and ingenuity that our ancestors showed. May we rededicate ourselves as individuals and as a community to Jewish living and to righteousness.