If you’re familiar with my stance on Christians celebrating Passover, then you can guess my feelings about Christians observing Hanukkah. In a recent article for Christianity Today, Maria Baer profiles a Messianic Jewish family who observes the feast of Hanukkah as a reminder of God’s promise to preserve the Jewish people.
While I take some issue with the label “Messianic Jew,” I have nothing against those with Jewish heritage continuing to observe the feasts of their ancestors. My concern is the author’s invitation to invite gentile Christians to celebrate Hanukkah on their own.
This is an unpopular stance to take in many Christian circles because of the shared spiritual heritage between Judaism and Christianity. It can also come across as racist by pointing out the difference between Jew and gentile, when Jesus said there is neither in the new covenant. In an ideal world, that would make sense. But the world we have is one where Jews have been, and continue to be, marginalized by Christians. That matters.
When Christians observe Jewish feasts, it tends not to come across as appreciation, but as a hijacking. That puts a strain on the relationship between Jews and Christians today.
When Christians feel tempted to observe anything Jewish, their intentions may be good, but they must ask themselves: is this really necessary? If it compromises our witness and ability to have spiritual conversations, then it’s not. Christians who are hungry for liturgy can find it in other denominations without having to look to Judaism.
Two different Judaisms
Am I a hypocrite for feeling a little irked by this article because I have a menorah sitting on my windowsill right now? Possibly. But that menorah has more to do with nostalgia for my childhood than an actual celebration of Hanukkah, which was a fairly low-key celebration in my family, as it is for most Jews. People are often surprised to hear this, but Hanukkah is not one of the most significant holidays on the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur is. But there are no festivities associated with the day of atonement, so it’s not commercialized.
Is there symbolism in Hanukkah that can be connected with the Christmas story? Sure (the CT article articulates this well). Jesus is Jewish, after all. The concern I have with Christians today, many of whom have no Jewish heritage to speak of, incorporating Hanukkah into their December festivities has more to do with misunderstanding Judaism than anything else. The Judaism that existed at the time the Hanukkah miracle occurred, and the Judaism Jesus practiced, died out with the destruction of the second temple 2,000 years ago.
So when Christians say they want to observe Jewish feasts to get to know their savior better, the intent is noble, and I applaud it. But that intent is misguided. Judaism today is a completely different religion, shaped more by Talmud than Torah.
My ongoing inner dilemma
Being very familiar with the beliefs and values of modern Judaism, I know that it really can’t be combined with the Christianity I practice today. The worldviews of each faith, particularly when it comes issues of sin and salvation, are incompatible. I knew when I converted how much I was giving up, how much my life was going to change, because of this. It’s an event that divided my life in two halves, really.
I have these two identities that, for better or for worse, share one memory, making that binary a little hard to enforce. But out of baptismal waters emerges a new life: Jewish Sarah is my past, Christian Beth is my present and future.
If there was any chance of maintaining open communication with my Jewish friends and relatives who wanted to know what prompted this decision, calling myself a “completed Jew,” or anything like that, would have shut down the hope of meaningful conversation entirely.
If Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfilled Jewish prophecies, it was the prophecies of a Judaism that no longer exists. Judaism today has evolved over the centuries to a point that it doesn’t depend on Torah alone anymore – if at all.
Respecting the divide
In my mind, it makes more sense to keep Hanukkah, Hanukkah, and Christmas, Christmas. It respects the separation of two similar, but also profoundly different, faiths. It honors the sacrifice I made that cost me relationships with certain friends and family members.
I know not all Christians will agree with this, and would prefer to emphasize that I’m the very picture of God’s fulfillment of the Scriptures. But that simply doesn’t describe my personal experience of Judaism. And I still lack the words to fully explain why, but such language makes me uncomfortable.
Of course, I want everyone, Jewish or otherwise, to know Christ. But I think that can be done by sharing who he is as a person, and what he’s done for humanity, rather than promoting a sort of hybrid faith.