Hanukka and Thanksgiving occur simultaneously this year, which puts a twist on an idea that people have in their minds that certain Jewish holidays are the “equivalent” of certain Christian holidays, even where there is no theological connection whatsoever.
Hanukka and Christmas, for example, often get paired, even though they are not religiously linked together. This year, with Hanukka/Thanksgiving, it’s an opportunity to think about how Hanukka and Thanksgiving relate to each other.
1. Hanukka is probably based on Succot.
There are eight days of Hanukka and eight days of Succot (including Shmini Atzeret). One of the proofs given for how the hanukkia (the special Hanukka menora, or candelabra) is lit is based on how the sacrifice for Succot was performed (Shabbat 21B). Both these connections probably come from the fact that the Apocrypha, 2 Maccabees 10:1-8 points out that Hanukka served almost as a redo for Succot when the Hasmoneans (the ruling dynasty of Judea 140 BCE to 37 BCE) were not able to celebrate Succot during the war to take back Judea from the Greeks. When they won, they made up for their missed Succot with Hanukka.
Succot might also be the basis for Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims saw themselves as the New Israelites, escaping religious persecution in England, their “Egypt,” and creating a new home for themselves in America, their “Israel.”
When they achieved a successful harvest, they wanted to celebrate with a harvest festival. Perhaps they looked at their Bibles (Deuteronomy 16:13-15) and learned that Succot was a harvest festival, according to Dr. Lillian Sigal in “Thanksgiving: Sacred or Profane Feast?” [Mythosphere 1.4 (1999): 454-455.]
2. The story we tell is different from the story that happened. The Hanukka story we tell is that the Maccabees, the founders of the Hasmonean dynasty, fought the Greeks for religious freedom. The Maccabees wanted religious freedom; however, they also wanted to impose their religious beliefs on others. The story of Hanukka is the story of a civil war in Judea, between those who wanted to be acculturated into Greek culture and those who had no tolerance for engaging in any aspect of Greek culture (I Maccabees 1:43-2:28 and 2:40-48).
We do the same thing with Thanksgiving.
The Thanksgiving story is that the Pilgrims left England for religious freedom.
Yes, they wanted freedom of religion for themselves, but they tried to impose a theocracy in America (Dr. Nick Rutt, “How the Religious Right Views History – and Why.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 72.2/3 (1989):528).
3. The Talmud Shabbat 21B opens its narrative of Hanukka in a bizarre manner.
It uses the phrase “Mai Hanukka?” (What’s Hanukka?) Obviously, they knew what Hanukka was. By opening their discussion with this question, it seems that they are making an editorial comment. They are posing: “Is Hanukka truly a religious holiday?” They were perhaps revealing their ambivalence about the holiday. They might have been troubled by the idea of extolling or emphasizing war. As rabbis seeking a religious experience, they may have found it challenging to connect to such a holiday. Furthermore, perhaps they felt, as a minority living in exile, that they did not want to promulgate a story about rebelling against a foreign government.
In some ways, this mirrors the experience of a number of late 20th-century rabbis when it came to Thanksgiving.
There are a number of examples in modern Jewish Responsa literature where rabbis essentially ask the question “Mai Thanksgiving?” In the actual writing of their responsas on this topic, they focus on the question of whether the celebration of Thanksgiving constitutes engaging in a non-Jewish religious experience.
While it is true that Thanksgiving began as a Christian holiday, clearly by the latter part of the 20th century (and maybe earlier) it was more of an American tradition with no religious significance. Therefore, regardless of what these rabbis wrote, what they were really wrestling with was “Should we really be involved in something that is so integral to the non-Jewish, mainstream American experience?” This conundrum is what really makes the intersection of Hanukka and Thanksgiving so powerful this year. Hanukka is equally a story of whether we want to be a part of or separate from the dominant experience of non-Jewish society. These rabbis who discussed whether celebrating Thanksgiving was permissible were confronting the same ambivalence.
It is interesting that, at the same time that these rabbis were involved in their debate, the majority of American Jews intuitively understood the power of Thanksgiving. The film Avalon by Barry Levinson illustrates this point beautifully.
The movie tells the story of the Krichinsky family in Baltimore. The film follows the family from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. It is interesting to note that while it is obvious that this is a Jewish family, the family never refers to itself as Jewish, nor do they celebrate any Jewish holidays, rituals or life cycle events, with the exception of a funeral. The holiday we do see is Thanksgiving, and it takes place throughout the life of this family. When the family has its Thanksgiving dinner, the relatives talk about how they came to America from Eastern Europe and how, after establishing themselves, they were able to bring the next relative over. The Thanksgiving meal is turned into a Thanksgiving Seder of sorts to tell the story of their personal exodus from Eastern Europe to America.
They even remark about how they eat different foods on this holiday. In other words, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” That same question is asked at the Passover Seder, which references the differences between the everyday meal and the singularity of the Seder. Just as the film equates Passover and Thanksgiving, so we can now equate Hanukka and Thanksgiving. In both instances, Thanksgiving symbolizes that American Jews can be both fully Jewish and fully connected to American mainstream culture.
(It is interesting that many Americans who have made aliya continue to celebrate Thanksgiving in Israel.) Judaism and Thanksgiving blended with each other from their first encounter.
Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York, was the first synagogue established in America, in 1654. The synagogue wanted to bring together their experience of being Jewish and American.
When George Washington called for an official day of thanksgiving in 1789, according to the synagogue’s website, they decided to apply Jewish liturgy to Thanksgiving. Similarly, many synagogues from different movements have developed Thanksgiving services over the years. Sometimes synagogues of different movements come together for joint Thanksgiving services or even ecumenical services, where Jews partner with other religions to create a service that is respectful of all, regardless of affiliation. These types of services have added a universal dimension to Thanksgiving.
This year, with Hanukka and Thanksgiving being together, the Jewish community has the power and the freedom to say we can do it all. We can connect powerfully to Judaism, to Americanism and to universalism.
May this coming together of Hanukka and Thanksgiving occur without compromising anything.The writer, a rabbi, is the director of learning and engagement at the Central Synagogue, New York.