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.
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.