A Menorah is not a Torah

Fairlawn NJ allowed the display of a Menorah in its Borough holiday display on public land a few years ago for the first time -- after debating the matter for a mere 30 years.

Why was that a good thing? Let me probe into this issue.

Like handshakes and holiday greetings -- seasonal trees and lamps can represent religion on a permitted surface level.

But Fairlawn and other municipalities should not feel free to promote all religious symbols in public government displays. Nativity scenes and Torah Scrolls, for instance, always symbolize faith in a more serious and illegal manner.

So says the U.S. Supreme Court in a classic decision in 1989 that allowed some displays of religious symbols on government property while prohibiting others. At that time many expressed dismay over the ruling. Conservative Roman Catholic scholar Michael Novak, for instance, argued that the ruling represented a governmental aversion to religion, that the court was saying that, "The religiousness of Jews and Christians is to be shunned as if it were an infectious disease."
Novak accordingly believed the court incorrectly differentiated the scene of the Christmas Nativity, which it prohibited on public grounds, from the display of a Hanukkah menorah, which the Court allowed, in its two decisions pertaining to cases that originated in Pittsburgh, Pa.

His opinion suggested that religious scenes or symbols should be permitted for display on public property regardless of the nature of the religious message they convey, and notwithstanding whether members of a religious group have evangelizing designs for supporting the display.

The Court, however, clearly and correctly based its discriminating reasoning in the two separate decisions on much more sophisticated factors. Government sponsorship of a Nativity scene was wrong in Pittsburgh because its context was purely religious, "unadorned by more secular symbols of the Christmas season," said Justice Blackmun.

Novak surely understood that the nativity scene is a representation of the birth of Jesus, indisputably one of the central religious narratives of Christianity. That scene is unambiguous. With no alternative meaning, it conveys and imparts one religious message. The Court's decision to bar such displays on government land made sense on constitutional first amendment grounds. It took the judges only eight lines to explain this unequivocal display. Novak cynically referred in his criticism of the decision to the "four long pages full of footnotes" in the court's opinion describing the meaning of the menorah.

I have always been certain that the rationale to permit the display of an eighteen foot high menorah a few blocks away from the Nativity scene, and to differentiate so clearly and extensively between religious symbols, is absolutely justified for three reasons.

First, the menorah is not the central symbol of Judaism. If the city of Pittsburgh had allowed Jews to display a Torah scroll on public space that would have been more analogous to the Nativity scene exhibit. The Torah is central to the theology and practice of all forms of Judaism.

Hanukkah, however, is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar that celebrates the victory of Hasmonean priests over Hellenizing Jews in the second century BCE. The menorah, traditionally an oil lamp, reminds Jews of a miracle of the rededication of the Temple. When the ancient priests had defeated their enemies they found only enough untainted oil to light the candelabrum for one day. Yet it lasted for eight days, now symbolized in the lights of the menorah. Jewish theologians acknowledge the importance of this event, but have always emphasized the subordinate position in Judaism of Hanukkah to other festivals such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Passover.

Second, the Nativity scene has one dominant Christian theological meaning. The menorah is a multivalent symbol. It has historic meaning for Jews and seasonal significance for all people. We light lights on menorahs, Christmas trees, Diwali lights, and throughout our towns and cities to symbolize our hopes for redemption and restoration in the season of our shortest days and most enduring darkness, around the time of the Winter solstice.

Third, context is crucial in the determination of whether presentation of religious symbols comprises state sponsorship of religion. The city of Pittsburgh set up a menorah, together with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty, as a clear demonstration of one of the great values of our society -- the acceptance of all religions, working together cooperatively for the public good.

As part of a symbolic embodiment of pluralism we all ought to applaud the public sponsorship and display of certain religious symbols. But objecting on valid grounds to the display of some images -- like the Nativity scene -- is by no means tantamount to what Novak calls taking "away our grounding in the Jewish and Christian belief that there is a creator, who made us in his image and gave us inalienable rights."

I have always been disappointed that conservative critics such as Novak allow their religious fervor to distort and blur their ability to see important, if subtle, distinctions in the delicate matter of government sponsorship of various types of religious displays.

Recently the blurring of the debate about religious symbolism has worsened. Regarding a pronounced semantic trend a couple of years ago, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said, "To rename a Christmas tree as a holiday tree is as offensive as renaming a Jewish menorah a candlestick".

Mr. Hastert does not understand much about the words we use for our symbols. Menorah means "lamp" usually an oil lamp. In Modern Hebrew it also means "flashlight". And calling a tree a "Holiday tree" does not officially "rename" it.

Clearly, we can't account for everything that offends people's sensitivities. We can however say that under the microscope of proper legal analysis, yes, because of their seasonal meanings, the Lamp and the Holiday Tree should be afforded a prominent place in the public square. And no, because of its theological essence, the Nativity scene should not be allowed to occupy such a venue.
The writer has a doctorate in religious studies from Brown University and has published ten books on Judaism. He lives in Teaneck NJ. [Reposted from 2006.]

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