Just say 'no' to Hanukkah Scrooges (and Christmas ones, too!)

Spirited Debate: Rabbis Shmuley Boteach and Brad Hirschfield on whether the festival of lights is no longer just a minor holiday


There is still time to do some Hanukah shopping, and weeks to go until we hit Christmas, so I hope that people will go out and buy presents for those they love.  That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but in some quarters it is quickly becoming one.  And while such anti-commerce scrooges are not totally new when it comes to how we celebrate Christmas, they are now being joined by some in the Jewish community raising the same joy-less warnings against what they call “over-commercialization.”

Don’t get me wrong, nobody should measure their self-worth against how much they can spend, especially during the Christmas and Hanukkah seasons when we know that millions of Americans will take on unnecessary and even irresponsible additional debt during the course of their holiday shopping.

I also appreciate that buying “stuff” can become a substitute for celebrating the rich religious values found in both Hanukah and Christmas – some shared and others quite distinct.  That said however, the chorus of people decrying the “over-commercialization” of the holidays, often in the most sanctimonious way, is really enough to make most people scream!

Can’t we have some fun, go a little over-the-top, lavish a bit of luxury on those we love – all because that too is a real part of this holiday season, however we choose to celebrate it?  In fact, when it comes to Hanukkah, going big and making things a little splashy are actually very traditional parts of the holiday, which has been about publically proclaiming the miraculous victory of a small group of Jews fighting against religious-freedom denying pagans.

Can’t we have some fun, go a little over-the-top, lavish a bit of luxury on those we love – all because that too is a real part of this holiday season, however we choose to celebrate it?

Not to mention that when it comes to public celebration, one person’s “too much” can be another person’s “just enough.”

So while ‘ugly sweaters’ with phrases like “peace, love and latke grease” may not make sense to some, they’re not so different from the lighting of candles as a way to let people know that it is Hanukkah and people are proud to proclaim it.

The same can be said for increasingly popular Hanukkah cards, window decals, etc.  They all are things people buy, but reflect the tradition at least as much as Hanukkah Scrooges say they conflict with it.

And to the Hanukkah Scrooges who decry new Hanukkah practices as “nothing more than Jews feeling a need to compete with Christmas”, I say ‘bah, humbug!’

Practices are not less Jewish simply because we may share them with our Christian brothers and sisters.  Perhaps in other times and places when relations were not as good as they are in America, but today?

That’s just crazy.  And it’s especially crazy when it comes to Hanukkah and Christmas, both which celebrate, among other things, our ability to find light, warmth and salvation at even the coldest and darkest moments in time.

And while I cannot speak for Christian theology and ideology, the premise which animates the Hanukah Scrooges – that consuming and consumerism are inherently bad or anti-spiritual – to almost any classical Jewish teaching, which typically celebrates that physical enjoyment and spiritual enlightenment are two inter-related parts of a well-lived life.

So while “over” anything is problematic, I don’t think we are anywhere near that when it comes to how most people celebrate Hanukkah.

I just think that people are learning the joy and enjoyment are religious experiences to be taken “seriously” and lived maximally, which is what I hope all people do this time of year, especially.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.