By David Bernstein December 6, 2015
President Obama: “Tonight, Jews in America, Israel, and around the world come together to light the first candle of the Festival of Lights. At its heart, Hanukkah is about the struggle for justice in the face of overwhelming obstacles.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.): “Today Heidi and I wish the Jewish Community a very Happy Chanukah. On this holiday, we remember the miracle that enabled a freedom-loving people – led by the heroic Maccabees – to defeat the oppressive dictator Antiochus so that they could once again freely worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For the eight days of Chanukah, the Jewish people commemorate their liberation from oppression and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. As the Talmud teaches, God delivered ‘many into the hands of the few, strong into the hands of the weak, and evildoers into the hands of the righteous.’”
Obama’s Hanukkah is universalist, about a “struggle for justice.” There is no mention of God. Cruz’s Chanukah (note the less common, but more traditional spelling) is about the Jewish people, with God’s help, winning the right to worship against an oppressive dictatorship.
Obama: “It’s a chance to reflect on the triumph of liberty over tyranny, the rejection of persecution, and on the miracles that can happen even in our darkest hours. It renews our commitment as Americans – as people who live by faith and conscience – to lead the way and act as unyielding advocates for the fundamental dignity of every human being.”
Cruz: “Today, the Jewish people, together with freedom-loving people around the world, once again find their religious faith and liberty under attack from radical forces of oppression and intolerance. Whether it is the BDS movement on college campuses, anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, or radical Islamic terror in Israel and around the world, we need modern-day Maccabees to stand together and push back against the forces of evil. As a nation founded by a people seeking religious liberty, America stands with the Jewish people both at home and abroad in protecting the light of faith and liberty.”
The lesson from Obama’s Hanukkah is that Americans should advocate for “the fundamental dignity of every human being.” Jews as such are incidental to the holiday, as is religious freedom. Cruz’s Chanukah lesson is that Jews must be protected from their modern enemies.
Obama: “During these eight days, let us be inspired by the light that can overcome darkness. As we recall the Maccabees’ struggle to free a people from oppression, let us rededicate ourselves to being the engine of the miracles we seek. May the lights of the menorah brighten your home and warm your heart, and from my family to yours, Chag Sameach.”
Cruz: “The victory of the people of Israel is a testament to God’s providence. On these nights when Jewish families around the country and the world celebrate with latkes, lighting the menorah, and playing dreidel, Heidi and I join with you to recognize, ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,’ a great miracle happened there. We only need look at our nation’s heritage to know that great miracles have happened here too, ‘Nes Gadol Hayah Po,’ and will continue to happen with God’s blessing. We are grateful for the Divine tradition and we give thanks for the blessings of liberty. Happy Chanukah.”
Obama’s Hanukkah teaches the sort of vague, and vaguely agnostic, and universalistic Sunday school platitudes one might find in theologically liberal congregations around the country, that we should “be the engine of the miracles we seek.” And he doesn’t even identify which “people” the Maccabees sought to free from oppression. Cruz’s Chanukah is both a specifically Jewish celebration and a “testament to God’s providence,” to which Cruz, evoking Ronald Reagan, also attributes the wonders of the United States.
Conclusion: Each politicians’ Hanukkah appeals to the sort of Jews (and non-Jews) most likely to support them. For Obama, it’s the culturally Jewish, universalist, theologically liberal or atheistic Jews who see in Judaism primarily a call to pursue “social justice,” and who often believe that Jews, as “white people,” don’t come within modern liberalism’s concern for marginalized groups.
For Cruz, it’s the religiously Jewish, theologically more conservative Jews, along with Jews who think that the Jewish position in the world is hardly so secure that they can ignore the fate of the Jewish people in favor of a purely universalistic ethic.
Given that each politician undoubtedly had aides responsible for their “Jewish portfolio” prepare their greetings, it’s a fascinating insight into their competing perspectives. I think it may also tell us a lot about the emerging worldviews of liberal Democratic and conservative Republicans more generally.
UPDATE: I suppose whenever I mention Senator Cruz, in the interest of full disclosure I should note that he wrote the foreword to my book, Lawless.
FURTHER UPDATE: You can read today’s coincidental profile of Obama’s current liaison to the Jewish community,Matt Nosanchuk, and see if you think it supports what I wrote. And yes, I am related to, and like very much, the Bernstein quoted in the article.