Let Hanukkah be Hanukkah

national_menorah_white_houseHere we go again. Wise and faithful GetReligion readers! Is it a mainstream news story that the beleaguered social-events staff at the White House sent out an invitation card for the First Family's second Hanakkah party (not the first, the second party) that referred to it as a "holiday reception"? And does this have anything whatsoever to do with the strained relations between liberal Democrats and, believe it or not, Jewish voters (see "Catholic voters")?

In other words, is this a real story because it's somehow linked to politics, as opposed to some secondary subject, like, you know, religion?

Well, here's the top of the breathless New York Times report:

At the first Hanukkah party in the Obama White House, a Jewish student choir will sing in sweet harmony, the two young children of a soldier deployed in Iraq will light a 19th-century silver menorah from Prague and President Obama and his wife, Michelle, will greet more than 500 guests in a celebration that is expected to spill from the State Room to the East Room.

But to the dismay of some administration officials, the plans for next week's party -- one of the hottest holiday events for the nation’s Jewish elite -- have been overtaken by feverish debate over the size of the guest list, the language on the invitations and what this says (or does not say) about Mr. Obama's relationship with Jews.

President George W. Bush, who began the tradition of White House Hanukkah parties, invited 600 people to his last party, administration officials say. But rumors spread wildly, first in the Israeli press and then locally, that President Bush had invited 800 people and that the Obamas were planning to invite only 400. (Administration officials say they have invited 550 people.) The invitations have also caused some consternation because they make no mention of Hanukkah, inviting guests to "a holiday reception" on Dec. 16.

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.

As for me, I am of the same opinion as Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who is helping the White House kitchens go kosher for the events.

"This is all one big overblown latke," the rabbi said. "I feel that we need to save our communal kvetching in reserve for when it's more called for and really matters," he continued.

What a concept. Now, the rabbi does raise another issue. What really matters this time of year? To state the matter very bluntly: Why is Hanukkah such a big deal, anyway? Through the years I have heard some very interesting discussions among Jews -- left, center and Orthodox -- about another questions that follows that one. Let me dare to state it this way: Is making a big, big deal out of Hanukkah an attack on Jewish tradition or a salute to it?

This question stirs up some deep emotions, as I discovered years ago while writing for The Rocky Mountain News (may it rest in peace). Here's the top of a column about the whole affair:

It was a simple, if mischievous, way to open one of those holiday stories that religion reporters write year after year: "It's beginning to look a lot like Hanukkah."

The rest of my story focused on the history of Hanukkah and the modern trends that have turned this minor holiday into one of Judaism's most important dates.

The telephone began ringing with a vengeance. Some devout Jews never made it past the first sentence and thought I was siding with those who promote Hanukkah as a "Jewish Christmas." Others thought the whole article attacked anyone who wanted to hitch a ride on the train that merchants and bureaucrats call "The Holidays."

The first group of callers stressed the message and traditions of the eight-day "Festival of Lights." ... The latter emphasized the reality of what it has become. Today, Hanukkah is alight with irony.

The bottom line: How many Jews want to keep a distinctively Jewish spark alive in this season, as opposed to marching to the mall with everyone else?

You see, Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. It's also not a major holiday built on a narrow focus on, oh, civil rights and religious liberty. Whenever I have talked to traditional Jewish leaders, they have explained that the message of this minor, but highly symbolic, holiday is its emphasis that Jews must defend the purity of their faith, rather than heed the siren call of the dominant culture.

Needless to say, that's an ironic and troubling message in the age of Hanukkah bushes and children pleading for taller and taller stacks of presents. The real Hanukkah is much more complex than that. Grimace, if you will, but sing along with the inevitable, "Maccabees are Coming to Town."

You'd best be a Jew, or suffer your fate. It does no good to assimilate. Maccabees are coming to town. They know if you're Assyrian. They know if you dig Greeks. They see you on the temple mount, consorting with Hellenistic freaks.

You see, with its emphasis on the political implications of this terribly important holiday, the Times report never gets around to discussing what Hanukkah is or why it is supposed to matter. Perhaps we have reached the stage where the actual meaning of the event is irrelevant. If so, that's sad and, yes, ironic.

Meanwhile, someone at the Times has plunged into this complex and sticky subject. That would be David Brooks. Check out his column on "The Hanukkah Story." It's appropriately disturbing.

And for our Jewish readers, may you have a blessed, meaningful Hanukkah season that is free of conflicts between synagogue and state (or synagogue and the mall, for that matter).

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