When a person is awakened to a pursuit of Biblical Faith (inevitably resulting in the desire to express that faith in its original Jewish context), there is at once a great sense of clarity and a feeling of loss: clarity in the understanding that one of those elusive missing pieces central to the puzzle of life has finally been revealed to them and lowered in place, allowing one to have an exponentially expanded view of the intended landscape; loss in the realization that many of those around them aren’t seeing the same picture they are, and that they can’t go where their friends and family may be anymore because the experiences they once had no longer have the same meaning—so there’s an automatic feeling of disconnectedness.
At the same time, particularly for Gentile believers, there is a natural hesitancy resulting from hiking in unfamiliar territory. We understand that we can’t go back where we came from, but what do we do? Many of the experiences and practices of Biblical Faith are uniquely Jewish; and it is very common to feel alien when exploring Jewish traditions and practices to glean Biblical meaning. For many of us, this is the first time we have felt like an immigrant.
A great example of this is the celebration of winter holidays. Personally, I always loved Christmas: the sights, the music, the food, and most importanly, the celebration of Jesus’ birth. When I came to understand that Christmas is a holiday of mixed Christian and pagan practices, however, Christmas began to lose its appeal for me. Instead, I looked at celebrating Hanukkah—a historical and Biblical holiday (though not one of the Levitical ‘appointed times’) that Jesus Himself celebrated (see John 10). The awkwardness of this, however, is that in Judaism, Hanukkah is viewed to a degree as Israel’s Independence Day—and while I certainly can rejoice with my Jewish brothers and sisters that the Jewish people were once again saved from their enemies, and I am thankful that the actions of the Maccabees were crucial in paving the way for the Messiah to come at the appointed time, the celebration is still somewhat foreign to me—and even more so to my family members who have studied less than I have. (I mean, Shir Soul makes “I Have a Little Dreidel” as cool as it can be, but still...)
So what can we do to ease the difficulty of adapting to this new reality?
- Without taking away from the original intent of the observance, try to captialize on what is meaningful to you—particularly Biblical/spiritual themes. All of the Jewish holidays—Levitical or not—contain a number of elements that are relevant to Gentile believers. I highlight these points in the Holidays section of the website. Specifically for Hanukkah, relevant themes include: standing up for what is right in the face of opposition; having faith in God for deliverance from or grace through difficulty; Jesus being the Light of the World in the midst of darkness (John chapters 8-10); Jesus' declaring that WE are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14-16; 2 Cor. 4:6); dedicating ourselves as the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
- Look for fun activities supporting the holiday through which your family can make lasting memories that are age-appropriate for your situation. I have incorporated a slightly modified version of spinning the dreidel that incorporates Bible trivia. This is perfectly appropriate, since the reason for the dreidel tradition was that studying the Torah was outlawed, and so the Jews masqueraded Torah study by spinning the dreidel and so appeared to be gambling. What's great about the version I deisgned is that it is scalable for any age group, so the whole family can play. Other options include a family outing for charity work (being the light of the world), making latkes, or eating sufganiyot (jelly or cream-filled donughts). I make a short theme out of each night that is able to be swapped depending on our schedule that year.
- If there are traditions that have been meaningful to you in the past, incorporate portions of them into your observance. NOTE: we must be careful here not to re-introduce non-Biblical or nonsensical/irrelevant elements that we have purposefully left behind (I personally would not do Easter eggs at Passover or Firstfruits, a 'Hanukkah bush' or a 'mensch on the bench'). Examples of what I do include during Hanukkah:
- I am of Polish ancestry on my father’s side of the family; one tradition that was always very meaningful to me was the opłatek, where all family members are given large pieces of unleavened wafers with which to serve the other members of the family. As one goes around to each member, offering them to take a piece of the wafer, one prays a blessing over that family member or speaks an encouragment to them in the name of the LORD (and then vice-versa). This is a powerful ceremony and is perfectly in line with 'tikkun olam'—being a blessing as the light of the world.
- Luke 1 gives us clues as to when Jesus was born: because of the priestly course of Zechariah (1 Chronicles 24:1-19, Luke 1:5), we can determine that Jesus was born sometime around the beginning of Sukkot—which means that He was conceived near the previous Hanukkah; the part of the 'Christmas story' that is relevant to Hanukkah are the annunciations to Mary and Joseph. So, I read this portion of Scripture and discuss what this must have been like for them. Certainly, the angelic promise of what was to come was very exciting; but it was terrifying as well, requiring faith on their part that God loved them and would work things out for their good. This concept of trust in the face of adversity resembles the situation of the Maccabees well as Judith, whose story is often celebrated by Jewish families during the Hanukkah observance.
- Study all that you can about the Feasts: the original Biblical prescription, how Judaism celebrates the Feasts today, and the prophetic meaning of each Feast in the calendar of redemption in order to familiarize yourself with the Biblical holidays and to be able to celebrate them in a meaningful and accurate way.
Adjusting to anything new inevitably comes with a period of uncertainty. Be prayerful, patient, and persistent; you will find that living and celebrating Biblically comes with great reward.