The Menorah Tree: Dangerous Religious Syncretism or Amazing Religious Creativity?

With Hanukkah fast approaching, consider this image. What do you think?


Dangerous religious syncretism, you say? Pandering to a perverse need to mimic gentile customs, perhaps? A perversion of Hanukkah's message of Jewish pride, as many will surely cry? Those are certainly possible reactions to the new-to-market "Menorah Tree", but I am not at all sure that they are the smartest or healthiest reactions.

Let's start with the claim of syncretism. What religious custom isn't at least somewhat syncretistic? Every sacred tradition belonging to every religion I know was once an innovation, and most of them have their roots in, or were borrowed from, some other community. And that is especially so for Hanukkah.

While not everybody needs to like this new experiment in Hanukkah celebration, those quickest to decry it, might want to breathe deeply and remember a bit of history. Hanukkah celebrates, among other things, a group's willingness to break the inherited rules of the Sabbath in order to fight like their enemies, tell the story of that fight not in Hebrew but in Greek, and then a few centuries later, popularize a candle-lighting practice remarkably related to the use of sacred fire by the Zoroastrians among whom they lived.

Syncretism is simply the word for a religious borrowing project whose success is not yet assured, which ultimately doesn't gain popular support, or which some current religious authorities don't like. They may be right and they may be wrong, but really, only time will tell. And that is especially true for something like this new menorah, which represents a real turning point in a long line of objects which blend motifs traditionally associated with either Hanukkah or Christmas.

Typically such Hanukkah-Christmas blends have been attempts to squeeze a bit of Jewish into something which is obviously and primarily Christian. We have had the "Hanukkah bush" - both with multi-colored lights, or the "more Jewish" blue-only or blue and white lights. We can purchase Christmas tree ornaments decorated with Jewish images. I could go on, but you get the point.

In each case above, the idea was to graft something Jewish on, so that Jews would feel more comfortable participating in what are typically thought of as Christian rituals. Aside from being motivated by the same spirit of inclusivity, The Menorah Tree is something quite different. It proudly proclaims itself a Jewish object onto which a bit of the dominant culture's decorations may be added. It is, in the words of its creators, "NOT a Jewish Christmas tree". Who could argue with that? It's a giant menorah, for God's sake!

In fact, the size of the Menorah Tree reflects one of the most basic reasons, in traditional rabbinic culture at least, why we light menorahs on Hanukkah to begin with - to proclaim the miracle of the lights which lasted longer than they should have, an of the miraculous victory of the few over the many, the oppressed over their oppressors. So, far from trying to help Jews blend, this menorah takes a rather traditional "in your face" attitude about celebrating Jewish so that everybody can see.

Not all people will be so enamored of the Menorah Tree, and even among those who are, they might not find that it fits into their own Hanukkah practice. Count me in that latter category, at least for now. But there is simply no way to avoid the deeply traditional, totally proud, highly inclusive and genuinely paradigm-shifting nature of this thing. And whether we use it or not, that is surely worthy of notice and even a bit of celebration.