12/16/2014 07:05 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Spiritual Hope on Christmas and Hanukkah 2014

Hanukkah (whose 8 day holiday starts tonight Tuesday Dec. 16) and Christmas share a spiritual message: that it is possible to bring light and hope in a world of darkness, oppression and despair.

The miracle of Hanukkah is that so many people were able to resist the overwhelming "reality" imposed by the Greek/Syrian imperialists in the 2nd century B.C.E. and to stay loyal to a vision of a world based on generosity, love of stranger, and loyalty to an invisible God who promised that life could be based on justice and peace. It was these "little guys," the powerless, who managed to sustain a vision of hope that inspired them to fight against overwhelming odds, against the power of technology and science organized in the service of domination, and despite the fact that they were dismissed as terrorists and fundamentalist crazies. When this kind of energy, what religious people call "the Spirit of God," becomes an ingredient in the consciousness of ordinary people, miracles ensue. True enough, the Jewish society set up after that victory eventually devolved into an oppressive and self-destructive regime which was easily re-conquered in the next century by Roman imperialism, and the cheerleaders for the Hellensitic culture (which both Greece and Rome introduced both as measures of ancient enlightenment and simultaneously as an instrument of cultural and political domination) persisted among the Jewish people. But we who have seen the persistence of the horrific legacy of racism and xenophobia in the U.S., and the devolution of American democracy (limited though it always has been) into cheerleading for torture and unlimited power of the super-rich to manipulate and control the economic and political life of our society but who still on July 4th celebrate what was best in American history and values can appreciate the celebration of the Jewish national liberation narrative even as we plead with our fellow Jews to fight for the same kind of liberation for the Palestinian people today that we rightly celebrate for ourselves on this holiday.

It is this same radical hope, whether rooted in religion or secularist belief systems, that remains the foundation for all who continue to struggle for a world of peace and social justice at a time when the champions of war and injustice dominate the political and economic institutions of our own society, often with the assistance of their contemporary cheerleading religious leaders. It is this radical hope that will be celebrated this by those Jews who have not yet joined the contemporary Hellenists.

Radical hope is also the message of Christmas. Like Hanukkah, it is rooted in the ancient tradition of a winter solstice celebration to affirm humanity's belief that the days, now grown shortest around December 23, will grow long again as the sun returns to heat the earth and nourish the plants. Just as Jews light holiday lights at this time of year, so do Christians transform the dark into a holiday of lights, with beautiful Christmas trees adorned with candles or electric lights, and lights on the outside and inside of their homes.

Christianity and Judaism both took the hope of the ancients, with their focus on fear of the dark and creation of a holiday of light to affirm that nature would return to the warmth of spring and summer, and transformed it into a hope for the transformation of the social world, a world filled with oppression. The birth of a newborn, always a signal of hope for the family in which it was born, was transformed into the birth of the messiah who would come to challenge existing systems of economic and political oppression, and bring a new era of peace on earth, social justice, and love. Symbolizing that in the baby Jesus was a beautiful way to celebrate and reaffirm hope in the social darkness that has been imposed on the world by the Roman empire, and all its successors right up through the contemporary dominance of a globalized rule of corporate and media forces that have permeated every corner of the planet with their ethos of selfishness and materialism.

Seeing Jesus as the Son of God, and as an intrinsic part of God, was also a way of giving radical substance to the notion that every human being is created in the image of God. For God to come on earth, bring a holy message of love and salvation, and then to die at the hands of the imperialists and be resurrected to come back at some future date was and is a beautiful message of hope for a world not yet redeemed, and became an inspiration to hundreds of millions who saw in it the comforting message that the rule of the powerful was not the ultimate reality of existence. And yet, using the specificity of one human being and identifying him as God, a move made by St. Paul but not by Jesus himself, did not fit into the framework of Judaism, which could not accept Jesus as messiah because of its view that the messiah would bring an end to wars and all forms of oppression, an end that had not yet taken place during or after Jesus' death.

Jews and Christians have much in common in celebrating at this time of year. We certainly want to use this holiday season to once again affirm our commitment to end the wars and violence and torture, to end global poverty and hunger by embracing the NSP version of the Global Marshall Plan, and to save the world from ecological destruction. We live in dark times--but these holidays help us reaffirm our hope for a fundamentally different reality that we can help bring about in the coming years. The miracles we celebrate happened in "those days" (ancient times) but also "in our own time," e.g. in the dismantling in the past five decades of many aspects of the patriarchal and homophobic aspects of global culture.

And yet, there are reasons to not mush together these separate holidays. The tremendous pressure of the capitalist marketplace has been to take these holidays, eliminate their actual revolutionary messages, and instead turn them into a secular focus whose only command is "Be Happy and Buy."

The huge pressure to be happy and the media's ability to portray others as beaming with joy makes a huge number of people despondent because they actually don't feel that kind of joy, and imagine that they are the only ones who don't, and hence feel terrible about themselves, something they seek to repair by buying, drugging, or drinking themselves into happiness. And when that too doesn't work for very long, they become all the unhappier with themselves or with others.

The pressure to buy as a way of showing that you really care about others puts many people into the position of spending more than they have, putting themselves into further debt, and then feeling depressed about that. Still others have no way to buy "enough" on credit, and then their children, saturated by a media specially attuned to the best ways to market to toddlers and everyone older through their teen years, make their parents or others feel inadequate because they have not bought what the media portrays as the standard for what a "normal family" buys for the holidays.

Jews, seeking to fit into American society, grabbed onto this path of the holidays "not really being religious but only a time to celebrate," and thus many embraced Christmas in the one way they could--buying presents for their non-Jewish friends and neighbors and celebrating Christmas as a "non-sectarian, American holiday." But this well-intentioned move to fit into American society only helped the capitalist secularists, and unintentionally further undermined the ability of Christians to hold on to the religious and spiritual intent of their holiday, even as it helped turn Hanukkah into a covert competition in which Jewish families felt huge pressure to equal or outdo their Christian neighbors with how much they could spend on gifts for their children and each other. These orgies of spending obscure the spiritual message for many families and add an element of vulgarity into what could still be a much deeper spiritual experience. This is why spiritual progressives of the Christian faith have urged the Jewish and interfaith magazine I edit, Tikkun,, and the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives to not celebrate the holiday as one undifferentiated "holiday season" but to celebrate the holidays as religious and spiritual holidays and to affirm the specific religious message of each one depending on which fits your particular faith.

Yet we also want to affirm the goodness in what secularists have tried to do with these holidays. There has been far too much anger and killing in the name of religions in the history of humanity. We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives do not believe that most of that killing was actually motivated by religious differences so much as by power struggles that were given religious justifications and appearances. And we are all too well aware that in the twentieth century over a 150 million people were slaughtered in the name of secular belief systems and secular powers (World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, Stalinist gulag, Maoist gulag, colonial and anti-colonial wars, etc.), so we are not going to buy any notion that says that religion being eliminated will increase world peace. Still, we can understand that those who have sought to secularize the holiday season may do so from the fear that without that kind of secularization it will be harder for people to express caring and mutual support if they have to do so through the frameworks of religions of which they are not apart. Certainly, when it comes to interfaith marriages and families, the need for this kind of smooth path to affirming both traditions is really much needed.

And yet, as a Jew, I want to recognize the particular importance to Christians of having Christmas be about Christ, not about gifts and drinking and merry making but about the meaning of the Christ for Christian belief.

In this respect, there is a fundamental asymmetry here. Christmas and Easter are the main Christian holidays, while Hanukkah is only a minor holiday that has become major only because Jews in the West who were trying to be more assimilated into the dominant cultures of the West in the past 150 years felt the need to provide their children with something that could compensate them for not having Christmas. But our major holidays are Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur and Passover (and of course, weekly Shabbat), and so when Hanukkah gets secularized we don't lose as much as Christians do when Christmas is secularized, so in respect to the requests from our spiritual progressive Christian sisters and brothers, I want to affirm their call to make Christmas a religious holiday and their desire to not celebrate it unless you are religiously Christian. And I want to call on my Jewish sisters and brothers to have faith in the possibility of love and generosity triumphing in this world, and to manifest that faith by insisting that Israel end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and recognize that its security will best be achieved through caring, kindness and generosity rather than through domination, exploitation and humiliation of the Palestinian people. It is those who carry that message who are truly the "modern Maccabees" carrying the faith that ethical righteousness can triumph over power.

As we enter this holiday season, let us stay conscious on all these levels, resist the allure and the seductive charm of the capitalist marketplace and its capacity to reduce all reality and all loving to the consumption of "things," and instead return to the deep spiritual messages of our own traditions, while lovingly supporting each other to stay true to our own deepest truths.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun Magazine, chair of the interfaith and secular-humanist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives, rabbi of Beyt TIkkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in Berkeley, Ca., and author of 11 books including two national best sellers: Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation and The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. He invites readers to subscribe to Tikkun, join the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and whether Jewish or not to come to the Hanukkah celebration he will be leading in Berkeley on Saturday, Dec. 21st at the Unitarian Fellowship Hall at Cedar and Bonita at 4 p.m. Info at