Chanukah: A Reminder to Resist

Chanukah began last evening at our house with the lighting of the first candle and the singing of

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Tonight is Shabbat, and Jonathan and I will sing the above as well as 

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

Every other evening we pray before dinner in the kitchen–first with our beloved Standard Poodle, Cocoa—prayers for the world and our loved ones, giving thanks, whatever we feel called to share—and then on non-Shabbat nights we conclude that by singing 

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

You will notice that the root of each prayer is identical. I really appreciate that, because each time I am reminded of the centrality of God in my life, indeed all life (at least as I believe). 

I am a lifelong Christian, a queer theologian guided by my ever-evolving sense of what being a follower of Jesus calls me to be and to do, AND I am also blessed to be connected to the ancient and contemporary Jewish roots of that faith. Let me be clear, I can’t help but come to Judaism with my Christian heritage and life, but I also come to this beautiful faith for its own truth and wisdom. To put it simply, I am doubly blessed. 

Actually, the blessing is rooted in my 23-year marriage to the love of my life, Jonathan, a Jewish man who helped and helps me engage with Judaism more than simply coming to love what was called in my childhood, and even in seminary, the Old Testament, the text truly known as the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh. He has helped me appreciate Jewish ritual and music and worship and values so now I want to participate more and more in it. I also am educated about the many Jewish spiritual texts by our rabbi and Jewish writers and scholars, which enriches my understanding and appreciation and grows and deepens my faith. 

Another way to appreciate this shift is that I am repeatedly reminded that God, the God of my understanding, is larger than any one faith, any one religious or spiritual system. So blessings abound. 

Tonight, at 6 p.m., Jonathan and I will join our community and Rabbi Joseph Berman online at the New Synagogue Project (newsynagogueproject.org) for lighting the Shabbat candles and the candles for the second night of Chanukah. I am honored to be a member along with Jonathan. 

Then, on Sunday, I will join my community at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. (mccdc.com) for worship at 11 a.m. The pastor, Rev. Dwayne Johnson will be preaching on “The Gift of Wilderness.” That congregation and our pastors are a huge blessing in my life, too. 

Then, at 3 p.m. that same day, I will join online the local community of Jewish Voice for Peace (https://jvpdc.org/jvp-dc)for a Chanukah party/celebration. Our special guest will be a young, gifted writer, Massoud Hayoun, author of When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History. It is a splendid book of story and cultural/religious insight. 

Jewish Voice for Peace is a national organization working for justice and liberation for the people of Palestine. Both Jonathan and I are members. Most members are Jewish, but I am far from the only Christian involved. It is a wonderful movement. We began our involvement with the cause while still living in Richmond, VA (where I pastored the local MCC church) through Richmonders for Peace in Israel-Palestine. When we moved to the D.C. area in 2015, we joined JVP Metro DC. 

I connect all this to Chanukah because, although it is not a High Holy time like Passover, Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur—and is often thought of as more for kids than adults (many view the contemporary focus on Chanukah as primarily a response to the dominance of Christmas in our culture)—I also understand Chanukah as a symbol and encouragement of resistance, resistance to oppression, injustice, and the failure to care for each other and the world.

I want to quote extensively from Rabbi Brent Rosen’s recent piece about Chanukah [the name of his blog, Shalom Rav, refers to an evening blessing of Abundant Peace]. He writes, 

Chanukah, of course, is based upon the story of the Maccabees, the small group of Jews who successfully liberated themselves from the oppressive reign of the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. The legacy of this story, however, is a complex one because the Jewish struggle against religious persecution took place within the context of a bloody and destructive Jewish civil war. In contemporary times, the meaning of Chanukah has become even more complicated given its proximity to Christmas, subjecting it to the uniquely American religion of unmitigated commercialism.

Beyond all these complications, I’d argue that the essence of Chanukah is the theme of resistance. At its core, the Chanukah story commemorates the victorious resistance of the people over the power and might of empire. On a deeper level, we might say that the festival celebrates the spiritual strength of our resistance to an often harsh and unyielding world.

You can read his entire article, which focuses on how we can resist Covid-19 through mutual aid, at https://rabbibrant.com/2020/12/10/Chanukah-is-about-resistance-lets-resist-this-covid-spike-through-mutual-aid/. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, I encourage you to read it and ponder your own ways of resistance, not only to Covid-19 but also to the other viruses infecting our world (including White supremacy/racism, militarism, the climate crisis, inequality and inequities of all sorts, and rampant capitalist exploitation). 

It may be the season to be jolly and joyous, as we are told—and it is also the season to resist, to work together to create the world God (however you understand God or the Universe or what/whomever) really means for us to have and be, not just you and me but every single body, human and non-human. 

So I say, “Chag Sameach” (pronounced “hahg sah-mae’-ahk) and/or “Chanukah Sameach”, or simply Happy Holidays or Happy Chanukah! 

And may the resistance be strong, resilient, and joyous.  

 

Celebrating the Baby Born to a Good Jewish Couple

I sang what was for me a new verse to an old hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” last Sunday.

O come, O come, O Adonai, who came to all on Sinai high,
And from its peak a single law proclaimed in majesty and awe
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!

O Come O Come Emmanuel NCH
from New Century Hymnal; vs. 3 is where Adonai is used.

It was for me the first time I had heard in church this term for God, Adonai, which I often say and sing during Shabbat services in the synagogue.

As one-half of an inter-faith couple, and as a pastor/theologian acutely aware of the deep links between Judaism and Christianity (links so often abused by Christians and understandably denied by Jews), I am always grateful when a connection between these two faiths I cherish is made.

Research about the origins of the verse (and the entire hymn) revealed that they are based on an ancient seven-verse antiphon that was in use, according to some scholars, as early as the sixth century. By the eighth century, these seven verses, known as the O Antiphons, were in regular use in Rome, as part of daily preparation at vespers for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, each one using a title that the faithful attribute to Jesus:

  • December 17: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
  • December 18: O Adonai (O Lord)
  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
  • December 20: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
  • December 21: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (O King of the nations)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)
o_antiphons_advent_4
blueeyedennis-siempre.blogspot.com

Interestingly, some see in the first letters of the titles, taken backwards,  a Latin acrostic, “Ero Cras,”  which translates to “Tomorrow, I will be [there].” But scholars do not believe this was the intention of the original writers.

Moreover, from an interfaith perspective, this interpretation is tricky at best: Jews would never use the term Adonai to refer to Jesus. Thus, although I was excited when I sang this verse in church, I became concerned as I did this research to think we Christians, or some of us, might once again be appropriating, or misappropriating, that which is not ours.

Jewish Jesus
theguardian.com

What is undeniable is that the birth of Jesus is a Jewish birth. He is dedicated, circumcised, in the temple as a Jewish boy/man. He goes to temple at age 12 and converses with the rabbis. He never calls himself a Christian. Nowhere in any holy text do we find an indication that he intended to start a new religion.

I want to think, and pray, more about how to be sure that these Jewish roots are not lost or ignored–certainly at Christmas but also throughout the liturgical and spiritual year of the Church. I want Christians to stop using the Hebrew Scriptures to proof-text why they believe Jesus is the Messiah (and really only value those Hebrew texts that they claim do this).  And please do not read this as an endorsement, or repudiation, of Jews for Jesus (any more than Rabbis engage in the arguments between various sects claiming to be Christian).

At this very moment when Christmas overwhelms our culture–of course, much of Christmas as it is enacted culturally has little to do with Jesus or any other faith–and creates a situation where our Jewish siblings can feel claustrophobic, it is vital that we give thanks to God, to Adonai, for the historic and contemporary ground of our faith in Judaism.

Let us celebrate the birth of this Jewish baby who grows up into a beautiful Jewish man and rabbi, from whom we continue to learn and grow spiritually!

Let us celebrate the One who is with us, and is coming yet again.