Letters From America: Thanksgiving and Hanukka
By MICHAEL COHEN
In observance of Thanksgiving, Hanukka in the US, we have chosen to celebrate both of these holidays as part of religious freedom.
Thanksgiving in the United States is the quintessential American holiday. The
smells of the turkey cooking in the oven, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and apple
pie fill American homes as families gather to be thankful and celebrate. For
many watching the NFL football game at the end of the day is what finding the
Afikoman is to Passover. There are other more tangible connections between
Thanksgiving and Judaism.
The pilgrims, authors of the Mayflower Compact
in November 1620, where they declared, “Having undertaken, for the Glory of God,
and advancements of the Christian faith” were guided by a very strong religious
fervor and faith, and saw themselves as establishing a New Israel. They read
their Bible, and many scholars point to Succot, the Jewish fall harvest holiday,
as being a basis for Thanksgiving.
We also know that Succot is the
original basis for Hanukka being celebrated for eight days. And that fact raises
an interesting point. Both Thanksgiving and Succot, in this day and age, are
celebrated as holidays of religious freedom when that was neither their original
intent nor completely historically accurate.
The earliest Jewish sources,
(II Maccabees), explain that Hanukka was an eight-day holiday, being a late
celebration of Succot since “during Succot they had been wandering in the
mountains and caverns like wild animals.”
Succot was also an appropriate
basis for Hanukka since it was the holiday during which King Solomon dedicated
the First Temple.
The story of the miracle of the oil does not appear
until much later during the Talmudic period, because the rabbis had an ax to
grind with the Hasmoneans who combined kingship and priesthood, and because
their corruption and infighting eventually led to the Roman conquest, the
destruction of the Second Temple and the end of Jewish sovereignty until
In all of these explanations of the origins of Hanukka the freedom
of Jews to celebrate our religion is paramount.
Thanksgiving is also
celebrated as a holiday of religious freedom. The Puritans left England via
Holland, having been persecuted in England for their religious beliefs. They
established the Plymouth Colony to be able to celebrate their form of
Christianity as they understood it and celebrated their first Thanksgiving in
November 1621. But they were not advocates of religious freedom for others; they
were believers in a theocratic intolerant community.
America, and the world, it was not the narrow-minded Puritans of Plymouth that
won the day, but a different Puritan, who made a break with them and whose
thinking would prevail.
Roger Williams arrived in Plymouth in 1631 with
his ideas of separation of church and state, and freedom of religion. By 1635 he
was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for these heretical beliefs and
fled to present-day Rhode Island, where we was welcomed by the Narragansett
Native Americans. From lands he bought from them he established Providence,
since he believed that God’s providence had led him there.
colonies formed into a nation over the ensuing century and a half it was the
voice of Roger Williams, as seen in the writings of Jefferson and others, that
became the true vision and aim of the United States of America.
brings us back to the story of Hanukka. While the Maccabees were fighting for
freedom from Greek occupation and oppression, they were not fighting for
religious freedom for all. In fact they were also involved in a civil war with
the Hellenized Jews of their day.
Like the Puritans who landed at
Plymouth Rock, the Maccabees had a very narrow view of who and what they would
accept when it came to religion; neither believed in a pluralistic approach to
religion. And yet we celebrate both Thanksgiving and Hanukka as holidays of
One could say that we have created a false myth about
Myths may not be literally true, but they are one of the
vehicles whereby societies safeguard their values. In the case of the observance
of Thanksgiving and Hanukka in the United States, we decided that religious
freedom is something we hold sacred and have chosen to celebrate through both of
these holidays. And for that we can be thankful.
The writer, a rabbi, is
the author of Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul.