A holiday against syncretism . . . syncretized

merry menorahEven though fewer than 2 percent of the American population is Jewish, the religion ranks number two in America behind Christianity's 77 percent of the population. I don't have the stats handy, but the number of Jews who marry non-Jews is a growing number, with interfaith marriages becoming more typical in the last few decades. And so every year we get stories about interfaith families -- which in this case means families where one parent is Jewish and one parent is Christian. And even though presumably this poses challenges every day -- of how to inculcate religious faith in children, celebrate holidays, and remain religious -- the press notices it once a year. Around Christmas.

So here's the Washington Post's Sue Anne Pressley with her hard-hitting coverage of the December interfaith dilemma:

The first night of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, falls on Christmas for the first time since 1959 and for only the fourth time in 100 years. And [Eve] Edwards--who is Jewish, married to a Catholic and raising their two daughters in both faiths--is primed for the occasion.

"I'm packing up the menorah with the candles and taking it to my Catholic mother-in-law's," said Edwards, 35.

No one really equates Hanukkah, a secondary Jewish holiday, with Christmas, which hardly needs amplification. The holidays sometimes overlap; in 1997, the first night of Hanukkah was Dec. 23. But this year's coincidence gives Dec. 25 a special luster of inclusiveness.

The only problem with these stories about religious holy days downplay the religious aspects of the dilemma. Hanukkah might be a secondary Jewish holiday, but its religious significance speaks directly to the comingling of religions.

A brief history: Under the reign of Antiochus (around 170 B.C.), Jews were forced to violate the precepts of their faith and an altar to Zeus was erected in the Temple. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion. Judah, who took over following his father's death, became known as Judah Maccabee and under his leadership the Temple was liberated and rededicated.

A new altar was constructed in place of the syncretistic Zeus altar and oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout each night. Even though there was only enough oil for one day, the menorah burned for eight crazy nights. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.

Here's how the Washington Post piece analyzed the religious difficulties of celebrating Hanukkah, a Jewish festival to honor the lengths which Jewish forebears went to preserve their religion from syncretism. Here's how it discussed the difficulty of practicing this holiday with integrity in an interfaith family:

But in some households, there may be a few debates: Will it be mashed potatoes with that big meal or potato latkes?

I wish I was joking. The article was completely devoid of critical thought. Apparently the collision of Christmas and Hanukkah gave reporters equal opportunity for offensive writing, however. Take a gander at this bizarre passage from Tim Townsend, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who I praised last week: chrismukkahyarmulke

As the New Testament story of Christ's birth is told in modern Christian churches throughout the world this weekend, Isaiah's words also will be read and interpreted to support the idea that Christ's coming was predicted several centuries before his birth.

"For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground," wrote Isaiah. "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering ..."

The prophet's words are part of a larger passage of 15 verses about a figure Biblical scholars call "the suffering servant."

Most scholars today acknowledge that Isaiah was not predicting the birth and death of Christ, but instead was using the suffering servant to talk about God's relationship with Israel during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.

That last sentence is one of the most preposterous I've ever read from a religion reporter. Ever. It's one thing to attribute the claim to someone -- but to substantiate it with an unidentified cabal of "most scholars" is particularly offensive. If, in fact, "most scholars" believe this, perhaps we could learn of the survey where they were asked about their views. Perhaps we could learn what type of scholars they are. Also, perhaps, someone could notify Christendom.

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