Letters From America: Thanksgiving and Hanukka

In observance of Thanksgiving, Hanukka in the US, we have chosen to celebrate both of these holidays as part of religious freedom.

November 21, 2012 22:12
3 minute read.
Roast Thanksgiving turkey [illustrative]

Thanksgiving turkey 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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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.

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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 1948.

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.

Fortunately for 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.

As the 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.

And this 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 religious freedom.

One could say that we have created a false myth about both holidays.

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.

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