Last week, five different people wrote me asking if making a gingerbread Hanukkah house might be a welcoming compromise for intermarried families and for those experiencing “Christmas envy.”
Some people even sent me links to articles about the Manischewitz Do-It-Yourself Chanukah House Vanilla Cookie Decorating Kit, whose comment section in Amazon is rife with complaints about the cookies crumbling in transit; an orthodox website with parve gingerbread dreydels; and my personal favorite, Dawn Ogden’s YouTube video on how to make a gingerbread menorah.
Another group of questions arrived about whether a dinosaur-shaped menorah could be considered heretical.
Short answer: Lots of Jewish traditions come from cultural imports that are then adapted to help amplify Judaism in healthy and holy ways. The question to ask yourself is whether the adaptation you are considering is one you want to help build into Judaism because everyone at your table will understand what you do as part of our ever-evolving traditions.
A few examples may help nuance your decision:
The Many Types of Judaism
Have you noticed the differences in rituals, music, art and foods between Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Cochin (India), Bene Yisrael (India), and the Beta Yisrael (Ethiopia)?
Many cultural adaptations are reflected in these while maintaining the principles of Judaism. In his new album, Nondual, Rabbi Andrew Hahn is giving away a new Hebrew Kirtan chant each day of Hanukkah this week in fulfillment of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying the spiritual practice” of contemplatively watching the Hanukkah candles burn down. Fran Avni also has a new contemplative album out titled Kulanu – All of Us in Harmony and you can listen to example tracks.
Adding from the varieties of Jewish world cultures might be an even more wonderful way of adding interest to your Hanukkah experiences. And remember, Jews are not a race: We are made up of every sort of human and type of family, so finding things to share that help everyone around the table feel honored as a part of your family is very important.
Bechol Lashon, the organization dedicated to support for Jews of every language and color has published Hanukkah Moon, by Deborah Da Costa and Gosia Mosz (Illustrator), which is a gorgeous story for small children.
Also, I was pleased to be a part of creating two books with a great team of authors to ensure more inclusiveness becomes available in Jewish life and lore: New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family and Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning. You can tell and discuss one every night! If you order at the given link before the end of December, The Philadelphia Jewish Voice will receive a 25% donation from each sale.
What Is Not Judaism?
Incorporating a cultural tradition meaningfully into Judaism and a holiday like Hanukkah is very different than syncretism, which is “the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion.”
For example, worshiping Jesus is not Judaism. Judaism maintains God as an awesome mystery, as the origin, shall we say, of the “source code” of creation. In our practice, no human is worshiped as a dead spirit or alive person.
Ways to experience the divine are very different across religions and have an integrity that only works inside of their own religious tradition. Each religion represents different pathways to the divine so long as freedom for all to find their pathways to loving-kindness actually are manifest. No one gets to claims the right and only path: We all get to have a room of our own tradition in God’s house.
So, can we “import” customs? The Passover seder‘s ritual meal structure is a great example. This includes the four cups of wine from the ancient Roman wine parties, and the practice of reclining. In Judaism, wine is not an “intoxicating gift from the gods” nor is it the “blood of Christ.” It is the divine nature of the gift of life: something we did not and cannot create.
So, if we create a gingerbread something for our Hanukkah tables, perhaps the menorah, what will be the meaning of that?
The Kabbalists created a model for mind-mapping our reality, understanding the Light of the Tree of Life to be the original light of creation, filtered to yield creation as we know it: how the divine manifests, if you will. This is in part derived from where the menorah is called ner Elohim, “God’s Flame” in 1 Samuel 3:3. This points to the original menorah as the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. So too was the burning bush, where Moses’ “aha” moment is that God is the infinite possibility for change and that he can go back to try to free those enslaved.
The menorah itself is described in the Torah in Exodus 25:31-37 with almond blossoms cups on each of its branches. Each of the Israelite tribes’ leaders have a staff made from almond wood connecting their lineage to the commitment to live in this light, the light of of mitzvah. In Proverbs/Mishlei we read that nishmat haShem ner adam, “The soul of God is the human’s flame.” Hence, candle flames symbolize our souls: yartzeit candles, shabbat candles, havdallah candles and Hanukkah candles.
The divine spark from the original light of creation is within all that is and lives, this is one of the ways to contemplate the lights of the menorah as they burn each night of Hanukkah.
Another approach to contemplation is experience the menorah of bearing Torah’s light, as the message the “divine flame” brought in synesthesia during the story of receiving the Torah at Sinai. There we “hear the lightening and see the sound” of the gift of a new awareness. This awareness is that civilization is actually a spiritual practice. This is the core mission and message of Judaism: the importance of living a mitzvah-centered rather than a self-centered life. This is the light of the original menorah‘s light and our purpose.
In the story of Samuel, we also enter Samuel’s experience of being called into “divine” service, to which he, like his ancestors, will reply “hineni“: “Here I am.” Just before this moment, the story tells us why he is being called: It is because he lived in distorted times like ours, when horrible things are being done in God’s name, and vision is limited to what was rather than what is needed:
וּדְבַר־יְהוָה הָיָה יָקָר בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם אֵין חָזֹון נִפְרָֽץ׃
u’d’var adonai haya yakar ba-yamim ha-heyn eyn khazon nifratz:
“The word of the divine was precious [rare] in those days, there was no open vision.”
וְנֵר אֱלֹהִים טֶרֶם יִכְבֶּה
v’ner elohim terem yichbeh
“so the light of the divine almost went out.”
What could you create out of gingerbread, or anything else, that will ritually help to wake us up to not let the lights go out? Happily, this present Hanukkah season has a convergence with another Jewish spiritual practice: the shmitah year that comes every seventh year (not to be confused with shmatah, “rag” in Yiddish).
For example, the organization Hazon, “vision,” is asking us to attend to light up our awareness this Hanukkah with the importance of reducing our use of non-renewable resources while creating and using energy sources, e.g. solar ones, that will not deplete or damage the earth.
How might you bake differently or create something out of that gingerbread idea that could be paired with a ritual of consciousness about the sources of light and Light within our souls, Hanukkah and sustainably within our daily lives? Hazon has guides to contemporary shmitah: sabbatical year practices that dovetail magnificently with helping “the oil last” for far longer than eight days.
The Freedom to Choose One’s Judaism
The magnificent Shabbat/Sabbath evening prayer L’cha Dodi arose during the Spanish courtier class practice of writing erotic poems to boys serving wine at parties where poetry-writing was the fashion. (See Norman Roth’s article “Deal gently with the young man“.)
How did Jews participate in that culture through the lens of our own theology? By metaphorically transforming Shabbat into a bride and writing poems to welcome Her, Shechinah, the experience of Shabbat as being in the moment of Shabbat peace. The “bride” we await is what in Talmud (Brachot 57b) the sages call the one-sixtieth part of paradise available to us every week.
What does it mean to bring the Shechinah, the Divine Feminine, more consciously into contemporary Jewish life? If peace is ever going to be in the world, it likely can begin with two mitzvot:
- ahavas yisrael: Jews behaving in loving ways towards each other across the thresholds of our diversity; and
- klal yisrael: inclusiveness where our practices are equally available to each other should we intend to faithfully engage in them.
A huge menorah is brought onto the men’s side of the Western Wall in Jerusalem every year. This year, Women of the Wall asked to have one on the women’s side and were refused. It is hard to imagine any religious rationale for this decision from anywhere in the spectrum of Judaism.
To co-exist peacefully at our holy sites, each practicing in our own ways, let our homes and holy sites radiate fullness of inclusions as pathways to peace.
I want to thank everyone who sent me those questions. You really helped me, too, to think about how to reclaim meaning and spirituality for Hanukkah, so that the original light of the original menorah in the original temple, that the Maccabees were saving, can illuminate the light of our souls.
In the Torah we read one last thing that offers another idea for that gingerbread Hanukkah home: a slogan to place as a sign on a pathway leading up to it, over the door, or on the roof.
My house will be a house of prayer for all peoples. (Isaiah 56:7)
כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּֽים
ki veiti beit t’filla y’kara l’khal ha-amim
May your home be blessed to have many peoples joining in meaningful celebration of the miracle of the light of a contemporary Hanukkah practice this year: Civilization as a spiritual practice through mitzvah-centered, rather than self-centered living.
And to adapt the words of the great Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin, may all your gingerbread be bright.