Hanukkah Marks the Complexities of Assimilation and Syncretism Faced by American Jews

Hanukkah isn’t for everyone. This has been true since its beginnings, as it celebrates victory in internecine military conflict and a triumph over assimilation. Even so, the majority of the 15 million Jews in the world will celebrate the festival of lights this week and next, which makes it strange that we’ll likely hear reflections in the largest public venues from those who are most ambivalent about it and don’t even identify as Jewish. Sometimes it seems that America is a deeply religious country that doesn’t know how to talk about religious sincerity in public without an airing of grievance, in a story of its loss, or through a political lens. 

Most of us American Jews know two things about our tradition: that we’re working out our struggles with aspects of it all the time even as we live inside it; and that if and when we see ourselves in Jewish life and community, it’s because we’ve made a choice to do so. America has largely made Jewishness into a voluntary association, an identity that one can choose to inherit from one’s parents or can opt into, an identity that can be partially assumed through family relationships and shed at other times. 

And this means, therefore, that even as we have to acknowledge that the pull of a richly lived Jewish life isn’t for everyoneand we have to grant those who opt out their right to do sowe also need to take more seriously how extraordinary it is that so many Jews continue to opt in. The path out of religion doesn’t have a monopoly on the discourse of personal autonomy. 

Is religion to blame when it loses an adherent? Modernity inclines us to think so, since religion seems constantly on the defensive against its allures. We also live in a marketplace of identities, so it’s not surprising, when people opt out, to imagine that religion has “lost” someone to a different life choice. The evangelical religions and denominations play into this mindset and quantify their successes and failures with the collecting of souls. All of us who work in religion are susceptible to this mindset, and it engenders a double-whammy when we read this kind of essay: a sense of loss we insiders are meant to feel about this person who “got away,” and an accompanying sense of guilt we’re supposed to hold about what we failed to do to keep her “in.” 

Indeed, I’m often concerned that my community fails people at the margins all the time, individuals whose identities or choices don’t fit with the normative systems for which most Jewish organizational infrastructure is designed, or who cannot benefit fairly from the resources made available through the vast Jewish identity and education ecosystem. That’s a grievance I hold close to my heart, especially when I see my community spending more money trying to engender an attachment to Judaism through (political) expressions of identity more than just on building lives of meaning and purpose for their own sake.

But when we talk about religion, we fail often to differentiate between those on the margins who want in and feel unseen or underserved; and those who are on the margins, or further out, because they choose to be there. I see a lot of people captivated by trying to evangelize others to their religious choices, and I see that sometimes as a lack of respect for the autonomous choices of others.

The pressure I feel as a religious person is that I know exactly that it’s easier for the Jew in the modern world to opt out of the entanglement of tradition and modernity, and that it’s hard to keep trying to stay there. Sometimes obsessing on those on the margins also constitutes a lack of self-respect. We become so fixated on serving those who really want to leave that we wind up disproportionately investing resources in them over the many who are still here, seeking, who need a different set of resources; not the stuff of “why be Jewish altogether,” but the stuff of “what is this Judaism that I’ve chosen.” 

American Jews are multitudes in our identities and ideologies, and I welcome the messiness. The choices that others make do not always conform to my own; but the acceptance of that difference is essential for me to want my own autonomous choices to be taken seriously as well. I’m also enthralled by the vast expressions of difference among Jews seeking a relationship to Judaism. In my work running a Jewish educational institution, I’m in relationship constantly with Jews who’ve made and continue to make different choices than minein their decisions about who they marry, how or whether they observe, what they choose to emphasize about our tradition or our rituals or our ethics or our other passionate commitments. But the only time when religion in the modern world can feel obligated to the reasoned choices of others is when those individuals come seeking what it has to offer: a framework of meaning and purpose for those who wish to access it.

Hanukkah is as good a time as ever to celebrate the contest for Jewish identity as a public concern. The central ritual of Hanukkah, the kindling of lights, is imagined by the sages as an opportunity to publicize the miracle (take your pick: an unlikely military victory, the oil lasting for eight days, the triumph of light over darkness.) Jewish law mandates that we light our lights from within our domains in ways that are visible to the passersby on the street. 

It’s a holiday that values Jewish self-confidence in public spaces, and which chronicles the contest between competing ideas about what that’s meant to look like in practice. The Hanukkah lights signal something outward, but I also hope that they can beckon the curious into the warmth and the noise, like the invitation we recite at the outset of the Passover Seder that “all who are hungry, let them come and eat.”

This isn’t the best year to have others in our homes, but this Hanukkah I have them in my heart. Hanukkah is an ideal reminder that not all Jews ever did, or ever will, want to participate in our rites or take ownership of our stories. Hanukkah will continue to mark the complexities of assimilation and the kinds of syncretism that American Jews think only we invented, but have been there from the start. Let’s listen for the rich struggles about faith and politics inside the Jewish community which are as much a witness to modernity as the ambivalences of those who choose to leave because of them. These are the fires, still burning, which light the way in for all those who choose to celebrate.