Hanukkah traditions lead to interesting questions of American Jewish identity

Every year at this time, I just can’t get over it. I am amazed at the incredible success of Hanukkah in American culture. It’s amazing how many shops, restaurants and homes proudly display menorahs, dreidels, and blue and white decorations right alongside Christmas cheer. And I no longer buy into the Jewish angst about the inauthenticity of Hanukkah — that it’s only hyped up because of Christmas.  I have come to see that, while there is partial truth in this fear, it’s also true that Hanukkah has evolved into a truly American Jewish holiday, one where Jews assert their pride in being Jewish especially in the face of Christmas. We’re proudly Jewish, and we have nothing to hide — that’s the brilliant light in the darkness of the American Jewish experience that Hanukkah has become all about, and I’m all for it! I love Hanukkah because it works: We American Jews find personal meaning and significance in a truly Jewish ritual expression!

I love the subject of what works and what doesn’t work in Judaism. We can all easily point to aspects of Judaism that have “made it” in American Jewish life: Hanukkah, Passover seders, mezzuzahs, bar mitzvahs. These have all made it because we Jews do them in large numbers, and many of us find these practices really meaningful. And why is that? It’s because all these ritual actions are affirmations of Jewish identity, of course. America is a place that celebrates our cultural tapestry of  ethnic and group identities, and being Jewish is a really meaningful identity to have in this country.

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But there’s a question that lurks behind the American Jewish success story: Is being proud of our Jewish identity really enough? Or is Judaism about something more than that? Of course, the answer to this depends on whom you ask. For many of us, Judaism is certainly more than just identity. It has a sacred core, a cannon of brilliant teachings, a system of cherished values and ethics. But for vastly greater numbers of American Jews, Judaism doesn’t need to be more than the rituals that affirm our identity as Jews, as a medium of proudly asserting our familial heritage of being Jewish. The deepest question that lurks for me, then, is: for these vast numbers of proudly Jewish Americans, ought not Judaism be something more, something deeper?

In the Torah today, we read about the extraordinary life’s journey of Yaakov, of Jacob. In many ways, the drama and richness of Jacob’s life is in stark contrast to the paucity of information we have about his father Isaac. Other than surviving the ultimate drama of Abraham’s near sacrificing of him, we actually hear very little about Isaac. We learn mostly that Isaac redug the same wells that his father Abraham had dug years before.  And that’s mostly it. But Jacob! He has his ladder, epic travels, romance, love triangles, struggles with villains, wrestling with angels! When Jacob dreams of his ladder to heaven, God even says: “Ani Adonai Elohei Avraham avicha v’Elohei Yitzhak.” “I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac!” Isaac seems to be chopped liver in this line; the real father of Jacob is Abraham! Is that really fair? In a way, yes. The Torah clearly sets up many parallels between Jacob and Abraham that it doesn’t set up with Isaac.

Like Abraham, Jacob also went on an epic journey in his life from his father’s birthplace. Abraham journeyed from Haran to the Land of Canaan. Jacob journeyed from the Land of Canaan to Haran.  Isaac, he never left home. He can’t even leave home to procure his own bride. Abraham sends his servant Eliezar to get a bride for Isaac. But Jacob, he goes himself and finds his bride all on his own. Abraham had to muster his own strength and courage, enough to stand up to injustice, even to argue and struggle with God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jacob, too, must muster his own inner strength and courage. Jacob, too, wrestles with a Divine Being at a pivotal moment in his life. Nothing like this happens with Isaac.  He never struggles or argues with God. So all these comparisons suggest that each Patriarch had a specific role. Abraham is the first. Isaac’s role was simply to maintain the traditions that his father had begun. But Jacob, his role is not just to maintain traditions, he must be like Abraham, reaffirming the core spiritual boldness, courage, and innovation that made Abraham great.

Our sages tells us that Isaac was just like his dad — except for one crucial difference: He lacked his father’s originality, his panache, his iconoclasm. And it’s not just that Jacob had the maverick spiritual boldness that Isaac lacked. Jacob had the unique and paradoxic challenge of affirming both Abraham’s traditions together with Abraham’s innovative spirit. We see this in another parallel between Jacob and Abraham: they both change their names — with one crucial difference. When Avram became Avraham, God tells him that this new name is forever more to replace his old name. When Yaakov becomes Yisrael after he wrestles with the angel, God and the Torah keep switching back and forth between the old name and the new name. The symbolism is clear: Whereas Avraham represents a total break with  the past; Yisrael is still connected to the former Yaakov; he still maintains the traditions of his forefathers.

But still, Jacob is an innovator, a chip off grandpa’s old block. The Midrash points out that Jacob was the first to make a neder, a spiritual vow before God. In making a vow, he is showing us all how we can take charge of our own personal relationship to God and to holiness, how we can forge our own commitments, and that kind of relationship to God had not been seen before Jacob. Whereas Isaac only walked yachdav together with his father Avraham, Jacob vayivater levado, he was left alone on his own path, as Abraham had been as well.

Jacob, then, is the greatest teacher of what it really means to be Jewish. Being Jewish is not just being like Isaac; it’s not just about accessing and digging into our fathers’ wells for commitment to tradition in each generation. It’s not even just about celebrating Judaism as an intellectual or ethical tradition. The truest and deepest way into Judaism is not through Isaac’s identity alone, but through Jacob’s journey  itself.  Jacob’s journey is the journey of finding our own path into the tradition that we have been given. It’s not just about affirming customs. It’s not just about blind imitation of what our fathers and mothers have done. It’s about living out of the core spirit of originality, of boldness and passion and connection to God and to life — which was why God chose Abraham in the first place. It’s about a willingness to face our angels or our demons even as we travel our life path — that’s what Abraham did, and that’s what Jacob affirmed. Even though Jacob, after it was all said and done, ended up right back in Hevron where his father and grandfather lived, he came home understanding why he was in this tradition. And his amazing life story is all the richer because of it.

In this personally authentic way, Jacob was truly Yisrael, and he shows us, his descendants, how to be most authentically Jewish for all time. Jacob also poses a great opportunity for us, his Jewish descendants in 20th-century America. We truly ‘get’ the idea of personal meaning and relevance. And as it turns out, we’re most Jewish when we seek this within our tradition. But we must ask ourselves some tough questions: Is my Jewish life a technology through which I express my most authentic self? Am I experiencing the traditions and rituals and commandments of my ancestors and living them as more than just affirmations of my Jewish identity? Is my Judaism just about my identity, or is it the path on which I journey to discover my most authentic connection to wisdom and spirit, to life itself? Is it just my family tradition, or is it my gateway to confronting my demons and my angels to guide me to my very best self? If your answers to any of these questions indicate that Judaism is not fully what it could be for you, that’s okay! You have the rest of your life to now reframe Judaism, to live it as a journey to your highest Truth. May we all learn to live not only the courage and faith of Abraham, the traditions and devotion of Isaac, but most importantly the wisdom and spirit of Jacob, of Yisrael. And may that path help us all to find the image of God alive in each of us.

Gil Steinlauf is senior Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

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