Navigating the December Dilemma

Navigating  the December Dilemma

Jewish Light Editorial

With Hanukkah and Christmas overlapping this year, the annual concern that has come to be known as the December Dilemma takes on added timeliness. 

Navigating through a cluster of joyous religious holidays without prompting hurt feelings, charges of discrimination or worse can be a delicate journey in an overwhelmingly Christian nation. This intricate mission is all the more crucial where children are involved.

To provide a road map — or, in this electronic age, a set of Google directions — the Anti-Defamation League has once again confronted this issue with helpful guidelines. And where it is appropriate, the ADL has joined with other groups to assure that the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion do not cross the line into an official public endorsement or advocacy for any particular religion or set of beliefs. 

In a useful publication on how to meet the challenges of this period, the ADL notes, “Every December, public school students, parents, teachers and administrators face the difficult task of acknowledging the various religious and secular holiday traditions celebrated during that time of year. Teachers, administrators and parents should try to promote greater understanding and tolerance among students of different traditions by taking care to adhere to the requirements of the First Amendment.”

In other words, schools need to tread the fine line between teaching religion and preaching specific beliefs.

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The First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion has two equal parts. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  

The ADL adds this crucial interpretation:  “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion to all Americans—including young school children— by prohibiting the government from endorsing or promoting any particular religious point of view.  This prohibition has led courts to ban such plainly coercive activities in public schools as organized prayer and the teaching of creationism.”

In the landmark 1962 case of Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court banned officially sanctioned prayers in public school classrooms or school events.  In its ruling, the court stated that offering students the opportunity to leave the classroom during prayer or to remain silent can run the risk of painting students as pariahs or being seen as disrespectful to their classmates. No one should be made to feel out of place in a classroom setting.

Public schools, funded by tax dollars paid by everyone, are an instrument of government and must take special pains to avoid breaching the wall that separates church and state.  Private and parochial schools of all religions are not limited in how they choose to observe the holidays; public schools must be.

In an era of increased intermarriage, not to mention a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic incidents and slurs against other religions, the importance of a diversity of faiths can be taught as a subject in public school classrooms, provided that no set of religious beliefs is favored over others.

But the December Dilemma also requires that parents demonstrate care and sensitivity in asserting the importance of enforcing the ban on officially sanctioned prayers, school plays and musical programs.

At this time of year, Jews celebrate Hanukkah as an historic event of the recapture of the Second Temple in 167 BCE. 

The belief that the one-day of oil for the Eternal Light in the rededicated Second Temple miraculously lasted eight days, while an important core belief of Judaism, it is not accepted by all scholars as an established fact, but as a belief of the Jewish faith.

At this same time of year, Christians celebrate as their most joyous holiday marking the birth of Jesus who is regarded as the Messiah or the son of God — beliefs that are not accepted by any stream of mainstream Judaism.

Certainly Jewish parents don’t want to be thought of as a collective Grinch or Scrooge opposing festive observances. Far from being part of a “war on Christmas,” as some allege, the exchange of general greetings like “Happy Holidays” should be accepted graciously in the spirit in which they are offered. “Merry Christmas” to those who celebrate the holiday is always welcome.

The ADL, Jewish Community Relations Council, the AJC and other groups, along with the rabbis and educators in our synagogues and temples, are excellent resources that can help everyone turn the December Dilemma into a constructive, teachable opportunity to share the joys of a festive season.