Once again, I feel myself a stranger in a strange land. After all these years, I am used to the Christmas decorations. My problem are the displays to be found in front of municipal buildings, especially the ones that include cr?ches.
There was a time when such displays were forbidden in this "secular" nation that prided itself on its diversity. That has changed. As long as the public display is part of a broader one that includes other observances and non-religious symbols, the courts have found it acceptable.
We helped create that acceptability by insisting on giant chanukiot being placed alongside decorated evergreens on municipal lawns, creating the "cover" needed for those cr?ches. That troubles me greatly. To begin with, to me the cr?che is a decidedly religious symbol that stands for centuries of persecution, forced conversion, and mass murder of Jews and Muslims.
What troubles me most, however, is that Chanukah is not Christmas, yet by insisting on those giant chanukiot, we send the message that it is.
There are many ways this plays out to our detriment. Let me cite one.
Chanukah is a minor holiday; Shavuot is a major one. Chanukah celebrates a myth; Shavuot celebrates the very real and unique moment in time when God appeared to an entire people to give them His Torah and to make them His kingdom of priests and holy nation. Yet a far greater number of Jews celebrate Chanukah than celebrate Shavuot. Equating Chanukah to Christmas, which celebrates the founding of Christianity, elevates the minor holiday to major status, and gives the lie to the argument that Shavuot is more important than Chanukah.
The equation also helps to skew Jewish values. Expensive presents are now the order of the eight days for a holiday that once featured "Chanukah gelt" that was supposed to wind up in a tzedakah box.
True, blaming all of this on those giant chanukiot is overly simplistic and downright wrong. It is not wrong, however, to argue that they contribute mightily to reinforcing a message that assimilation had already been spreading. That, of course, is the ultimate irony, since Chanukah is the outgrowth of a war against assimilation.
Speaking of skewing Jewish values, some readers recently took the Standard and its editor to task because of an editorial criticizing the trend to ever more lavish bnai and bnot mitzvah celebrations. The editorial was prompted by an indecently lavish bat mitzvah celebration in Florida. The criticism came from people who saw nothing wrong with these mega-affairs. These readers could not be more misguided.
"Bar/bat mitzvah" literally means "son/daughter of the commandment." As the translation suggests, to be a bar or bat mitzvah means to be obligated to perform the mitzvot, the commandments. For this reason, it is traditional for the parents of a bar or bat mitzvah to recite the following beracha: "Blessed is He who has freed me of responsibility for this one’s improper actions."
There is nothing required to turn a child into a bar or bat mitzvah. It is a simple matter of the passage of time. A girl becomes a bat mitzvah when she reaches the age of 1′. A boy becomes a bar mitzvah when he reaches 13. From that moment on, the child is responsible for his or her own deeds.
To properly observe the commandments requires a lifetime commitment to study the Law in order to understand its meaning and its application to any situation at any time — ancient, modern or future.
That means that the ceremonies that have become so ritualized in our culture do not mark the end of a learning process, but only its beginning.
These ceremonies, while unnecessary, nevertheless have great value. The boy or girl must undertake an awesome task — learning to chant portions of the Torah and/or the Prophets. Accomplishing this task involves a serious dedication of time and the necessity of making choices (i.e., studying vs. soccer practice). Most important is the speech the bar or bat mitzvah is called on to deliver. We call it a d’var Torah, literally "a word of Torah." The child must study a text thoroughly and derive from it a lesson on the meaning of being a Jew in the modern world.
The bar or bat mitzvah also is required — or should be — to undertake a "mitzvah project," a way of demonstrating that being Jewish includes involving one’s self in righteous acts.
These ceremonies, however, are made meaningless when the "real" event is some lavish affair, with expensive gowns, exotic locations, and stellar entertainment.
Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with parties. It is when the parties get out of hand, when they become the point, that the message is lost.
We, the Jewish people, and our future are the lesser for that.
There are two issues that are for me sources of endless frustration: The high cost of Jewish education and the high cost of burying our dead in Bergen County, both of which continue to climb with abandon. Of all the issues I have addressed in this space over time, these two are the "no-brainers" that surely should have spurred the community to some kind of action.
The North Jersey Board of Rabbis is tackling the cemetery issue, but parallel action has not been forthcoming from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. No synagogue or Jewish organization has called a mass meeting or organized a protest.
We are being soaked by cemeteries at the most vulnerable time of our lives — when we have a loved one to be buried — and the community response is non-existent.
The same is true for the need to find ways to guarantee all our children a quality Jewish education and to make that education affordable to all.
God willing, in the coming months, I will continue to address both issues. God willing, too, our community will begin to address these issues, as well.
Hey, even rabbis are allowed to dream.