Shaking the Venerable Vegetables

This mitzvah I do perform – with relish. (Actually, I make the relish out of the venerable vegetables – or, at least, the sacred citron – once the holiday is over.) Sukkot is the best holiday. And this year, thanks to my wife, we actually have a sukkah for the first time – kudos to her for actually talking to the board of our coop and getting access to the necessary space.

In any event, having secured the board’s approval for us to put up a sukkah behind the building, in what is normally part of the super’s yard, I subsequently heard that one of the nannies is a bit huffed that the board is permitting a sukkah but banned the previously traditional Christmas tree from the lobby. Now, personally, I was all in favor of the Christmas tree in the lobby, and was upset when the board decided to nix it; moreover, in case anyone’s wondering, the decision to banish the Christmas tree had more to do with aesthetics than religion, and was not the initiative of touchy Jewish members of the coop at all, so far as I know. But I must admit, if I were the nanny in question I wouldn’t believe my protestations for an instant. Moreover, the coop does still put a (small, unobtrusive) Hanukkah menorah in the lobby every year. So allow me to take this opportunity to get on my annual hobby horse in a new venue.

Putting a Hanukkah menorah in your store/office/apartment building is sweet inasmuch as it is an attempt to show that you acknowledge and care about your Jewish patrons/employees/residents. But it is a mistake. The Hanukkah menorah is a sectarian, particularistic symbol, much more so than a Christmas tree. Lighting a menorah is an unquestionably religious act, whereas putting up a Christmas tree is questionably so. But more to the point, the mitzvah is lighting the menorah – not viewing one that has been lit by someone else. (By contrast, the mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar blown, not to blow it yourself.) So putting up a menorah is not being ecumenical; it’s being particularistic. It’s not secularizing; it’s sacralizing. And it’s not even helping Jews fulfill a religious obligation; indeed, it more likely generates confusion about what the religious obligation is.

By contrast, if you really do want to show how welcoming you are to Jews and Judaism, allow a sukkah to be erected on your property during Sukkot. The mitzvah on Sukkot is to dwell – which, for most people, means to take meals – in a sukkah. If you have residents or employees in your building who want to observe the holiday, they will be very grateful that you have made it easier for them to perform this mitzvah. And Sukkot is arguably the least particularistic, most universalistic of Jewish holidays, inasmuch as in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, all nations were welcome to offer sacrifices at Sukkot (unlike Passover, when only Jews could partake), and the holiday itself looks forward to the messianic age foretold in Isaiah when all nations will worship the one God at His holy mountain – rather as Christmas is about joy to the world and peace on earth.

The practice of placing a menorah next to the Christmas tree is based on the false notion that the menorah "kashers" the tree – it makes a Jewish symbol into a talisman of "non-Christianity" rather than letting Judaism be itself – and inasmuch as it lets Judaism be itself, it inserts a particularistic message that isn’t perfectly suited to the public square, much as putting up a cross would do. And, to top it all off, it isn’t even authentically enacting a Jewish religious ritual (unless the menorah is lit by a Jew, as opposed to the non-Jewish doorman). By contrast, putting up a sukkah authentically helps Jews fulfill a religious obligation, allows Judaism to speak in its own voice (and at its own time), and to speak in a voice that is properly suited to the public square, one that is universalizing rather than particularistic.

Of course I don’t expect this particular hobby horse of mine to ever get ridden anywhere. But I suppose I’ll keep getting on.