11/22/2013 06:30 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Kosher Turkey: Traditions that Compliment - and Compete

For the first time in over 100 years, and only the second time ever, Thanksgiving & Hanukkah will fall on the same day this year. (The last time was 1888.) To most Americans, this coincident timing isn't terribly interesting (assuming it's even known), which I completely understand. It's not like my calendar's marked to see when Kwanza falls. But for American Jews, the event has generated a fair amount of attention. Admittedly, much of the commentary has been light-hearted: Some people are referring to the hybrid holiday as "Thanksgivukkah!" (I'm not.) Others talk about serving the traditional Hanukkah dish of latkes (fried potato pancakes) with cranberries on the side, or making them with sweet potatoes. Both of which sound pretty good actually. But questions like whether to light the menorah before the festive meal or before football kick-off don't really interest me. What does is the relationship between underlying themes - themes that are complimentary in some ways, and yet conflict-provoking in others. Allow me to explain.

To many, Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom. It commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Jews secured in their unlikely victory over the Greek Syrians (in 167 B.C.E.) who had desecrated the holy site and restricted religious practice. But the holiday has an important sub-text, which is decidedly less sanguine. In addition to facing intolerant oppressors, the ancient Jews faced another danger - Hellenization. Greek civilization was attractive to many Jews and influenced them accordingly. However, more traditional Jews considered this cultural assimilation to be an existential threat - so much so that they essentially waged civil war. This story is rarely taught in Hebrew school - it's not as fun as oil that miraculously lasted eight nights - and yet it's essential to acknowledge because today Jews face a similar dilemma.

I absolutely love Thanksgiving. Who doesn't? It's the quintessential American holiday. Though it was originally a harvest festival - and today many still do acknowledge the blessings of our economic bounty - Turkey Day has come to represent more. Because it has no particular religious affiliation or ritual associated with it, Thanksgiving exemplifies pluralism, a value that characterizes and helps distinguish the United States - even if the Puritans who left England weren't quite so tolerant themselves. And herein lies the problem: Though far from perfect, the degree to which American society is so free and so accepting has reduced the external pressures that often prompt ethnic groups to maintain identifying customs and traditions. At the same time, many of the rituals that have defined Jewish practice for thousands of years now resonate less and less with American Jews.

For example, a work colleague recently attended synagogue and emailed me immediately after: "Have services always been close to four hours? O.M.G! And why do we say the exact same prayer so many times?!" Perhaps this helps explain why a childhood friend who attended Jewish elementary school with me has become a practicing Buddhist; in fact, he recently invited me to the Zen Center to celebrate his becoming some sort of lay monk in what felt like a Buddhist Bar Mitzvah. To be clear, I'm not judging or necessarily lamenting, I'm simply observing: The undeniable fact, borne out by the oft-cited Pew Research Study and anecdotes all around us, is that most modern Jews, especially those in an accepting America, no longer feel bound by or engaged by an old Judaism.

From its outset, the Torah posits an ongoing tension between two imperatives - the universal and the particular: The God of Israel is the God of all humanity, so morality transcends nationality, but Jews have additional obligations they are commanded to keep. In this vein, I recently asked my students to comment on this line from Rabbi Danny Gordis: "To love all humanity equally is to love no one intensively." Some agreed, many did not. But for those of us committed to ensuring Jewish continuity, we must offer a compelling solution to this predicament - one that acknowledges that less parochial does not mean less spiritual, and that cultural preservation cannot be achieved by pushing, it must come from an appeal that pulls. Something to discuss over dinner next Thursday, whether the turkey you eat is kosher or not.