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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Managing the holiday season

I'm always wrong about the Lunch and Learn discussion - the articles I think will create interesting and lively discussions never seem to elicit them, and the ones I think will be dull, inevitably are the most interesting and lively.  Case in point is the last 2 months - the November discussion, about Gilad Shalit and life in Israel, never really got off the ground, but this month, about Hanukkah and Christmas, was excellent, despite my dour expectations.

I liked the article, from a book about Hanukkah ("A family guide to spiritual celebration"), the section called "The December Dilemma," which recommended a middle ground regarding Christmas participation, and offered this excellent advice: if you participate in Jewish celebrations all year long (e.g., Passover, Purim, Tu B'shevat, Simchat Torah), it matters less that our winter holiday is less elaborate than Christmas.

One exchange especially struck me, when one of the rabbis pointed out that the miracle of the oil was added to the Macabee story centuries later, to increase the spiritual content of the holiday and decrease the emphasis on rebellion - one of the group members got a bit incensed, suggesting that our celebrations are based on "lies."  Several people in the group, including me, said that they're not lies, they're myths and legends and allegories that give meaning to our activities.  I also pointed out that these stories have many parallels in other cultures - virgin births and resurrections and miraculous lights that burn when they shouldn't. He dismissed this - "does that mean that it doesn't matter which tradition you follow?"  But that's not my interpretation at all.  The strikingly common themes only demonstrate how connected we really are, and how our understanding and experience of the divine is shared throughout humanity.

Rabbi Pepperstone talked briefly about his recent readings on science and the bible (e.g., Nahum Sarna's Understanding Genesis, 1996), and I found myself thinking about how interesting and important I find such scholarly works, and how much more connected I feel to Judaism when I understand its roots and its evolution - it makes it seem bigger and more powerful, rather than diminished by losing its magic and mysticism.



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