THE BLOG
12/02/2013 08:40 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2014

Hanukkah's Real War on Thanksgiving

Robert Clare via Getty Images

A leisurely holiday weekend afforded me plenty of time to reflect on the unique conflation of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, which I did (as I do most of my best reflecting) in front of the television. This year, the airwaves were filled with virtually endless discussion of the holiday shopping season. Nearly every commercial touted a Black Friday deal. News outlets covered the shopping bonanza, helpfully outlining the difference between the weekend's different days ("Black Friday," "Small Business Saturday," and "Cyber Monday") and identifying their picks of the best buys.

But it was, as it so frequently is, the satirists at The Onion who put Thanksgiving weekend shopping in its proper perspective, reporting, "42 Million Dead In Bloodiest Black Friday Weekend On Record." The headline is, of course, a humorous embellishment, but it is funny because it hits on the increasing frequency of violence on Black Friday. The drive to take advantage of the best sales has led, in recent years, to increasing reports of people injuring, trampling, and even killing fellow shoppers in order to be first in line. In 2011, for example, Target shoppers stepped over an elderly man's collapsed body in order to keep shopping. He later died in the hospital. This year, mayhem ensued in a number of retailers around the country. Corporations like General Motors made commercials that played on our awareness of the growing phenomenon. Taser-fights over consumer goods has become our new normal. And with more and more retailers opening on Thanksgiving Day, a celebration of consumption threatens subsume a festival of gratitude.

Over the past few years, some have tried to curb these nefarious elements of the Thanksgiving shopping weekend. But these well-meaning initiatives do not get at the heart of the matter: Consumers' desires to get their holiday gift-buying done as early and as cheaply as possible. Thus, we cannot resolve the Black Friday problem without resolving a more fundamental problem, namely holiday gifting.

In a sense, then, when Stephen Colbert recently lamented that Hanukkah was waging war on Thanksgiving, he was right (I assume Christmas is waging a similar war, but as a Jew, I do not know for certain). For nearly two centuries, fueled in part by our alienation from the dominant cultural celebration, Hanukkah has been a major gift-giving holiday among American Jews. As Adam Sandler sang, "Instead of one day of presents, we have eight crazy nights." And since Sandler released his "Chanukah Song" in 1994, it feels that the practice has boomed. The gifts have become more lavish, more ubiquitous, and, simply, more.

There is nothing inherently wrong with enhancing the joy of a holiday by giving gifts to and receiving gifts from friends and loved ones. But a spiritual and ethical challenge emerges when the occasion is used as a pretext to consume and demand: to expect extravagance, to cater to increasingly lavish wish-lists, to ensure that we keep up with neighbors and classmates, to buy the love of those around us. The level of holiday gifting common in today's Jewish community discourages gratitude; it encourages us to focus on all the things we do not have instead of appreciating the things -- and the people -- we do. And it distracts us from focusing on the needs of those in our society who truly do not have enough.

Without a doubt, breaking this culture may well be impossible. Indeed, I admit that I succumb to these drives and these pressures too. I like giving and receiving nice things as much as the next guy. Moreover, in a consumer economy like ours, totally dismantling a culture of gift buying could be destructive.

Fortunately, embedded within the traditional Hanukkah celebration itself might be at least a partial antidote:

Despite the fact that some argue gift-giving was not a Hanukkah practice until the 19th century, gifts have always been a part of the holiday's consciousness. On each of the eight days of Hanukkah, observant Jews chant a section from the Torah (Numbers chapter 7) detailing what each of the ancient Israelite tribal chiefs gave to help construct the Tabernacle, the Israelites' sanctuary during their forty-year wilderness sojourn. On each day of Hanukkah, we read a catalogue of gifts. Jewish tradition seems to be saying that presents on Hanukkah are all part of the package.

But on careful analysis, a different picture emerges. Each of the chiefs brings identical gifts. Additionally, the gifts are not destined for any individual, but rather to the Tabernacle, which means they will be evenly distributed within the community. Finally, as Rabbi Abe Friedman recently reminded me, all the tribes -- and ultimately, then, all the people -- are represented in the gift giving. No one is left out.

The way I read it, this Torah reading presents a Hanukkah -- and Christmas -- challenge for us to consider today: What would it look like if all the members of a community committed to spending the same amount on their gifts? What if, instead of trying to out-gift others, or to win affection by buying the most extravagant gift, we affirm that it is the act, and the love behind it, that matters, and not the object itself? What would it look like if, instead of (or at least in addition to), the gifts we buy our own friends and families, we committed to giving gifts that can benefit everyone in our communities, especially the neediest among us? What would it look like if we committed to make sure no one is made to feel left out, lonely, marginalized, or diminished, because he or she is not in a position to give or receive a gift?

We may never be able to end the culture of gift giving on the holidays. Indeed, we may not want to. But harnessing the deep wisdom of the Jewish tradition, we can work within that culture to elevate it, and to lift up all those around us.