Being a Humanistic Jew means living in a middle ground between secular friends who ask, “If you don’t believe in God, why are you still Jewish?” and theistic Jewish friends, who sometimes ask the same question!
Hanukkah, the most widely celebrated holiday on the Jewish calendar, provides a great opportunity to explain how “nontheist religion” works.
Here are eight reasons, one for each night, why atheist Jews can still love Hanukkah.
1. It’s cultural, not religious
Yes, Judaism is the name of a religion. But Judaism is so much more than a religion. It’s been described as a culture, a civilization, an ethnicity (really, multiple ethnicities), a peoplehood, nation, tribe, family. This is not always easy for those from Christian or Muslim backgrounds to understand, and the fact that we don’t fit neatly into other people’s boxes has historically caused Jews a lot of misery.
My ancestors lived in Poland and Ukraine for hundreds of years, yet were never considered Poles or Ukrainians, just Jews. They were forcibly segregated into their own towns (shtetls) and ghettos, spoke their own language (Yiddish), and rarely intermarried. Today’s genetic testing identifies me as Ashkenazi Jewish, not Polish or Ukrainian.
From Shalom Aleichem to Seinfeld, the Jewish cultural tradition extends far beyond religion (and at times has been anti-religious). And this is just from my corner of the Jewish world; powerful cultural identities also emerged from the other Jewish ethnicities. Suggesting that atheist Jews need to disavow their Jewish identity completely would be like telling Black nonbelievers to give up gospel or atheist Irish Americans not to wear green on March 17 because the holiday has the word “Saint” in it.
Of course, Jewish culture is inextricably intertwined with the religion’s holidays, lifecycle events, stories, and myths. But rejecting the supernatural doesn’t mean we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater; we can still derive meaning from much of it. As for Hanukkah, it is barely religious even for religious Jews. The “spiritual” part takes literally 90 seconds: three blessings on the first night while lighting the menorah, down to two each night thereafter. It’s a home celebration, no rabbi or synagogue needed. It was always tailor-made for secular celebration!
2. It fosters multiculturalism
Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” but its proximity to Christmastime is one factor that took Hanukkah from a minor celebration to the major holiday it is today. Some see this as an attempt by Jews to “assimilate,” but it’s actually the opposite.
The easiest way for American Jews to assimilate is to become Christian and celebrate Christmas. And certainly, some Jews have taken that route. The larger countertrend though is that Hanukkah has become bigger and more celebrated than ever—even with the majority of Jewish marriages today being interfaith/intercultural. So why make it harder on ourselves by remaining so visibly different?
I’d argue there is a benefit to the minority experience, despite all its challenges. As a white, cisgendered man, I don’t have to reveal my minority status. Yet even with all my privilege, knowing I’m also part of a historically marginalized people—particularly with today’s rising antisemitism—engenders empathy for all other minority experiences. Atheists in America understand this too. I think Jews, atheists, and Jewish atheists all want inclusion and representation, but on our own terms, without having to do it the way Christian America dictates.
And this opens the door for even greater inclusion. For example, a number of public-school systems across the country that had already acknowledged Jewish holidays now also acknowledge Hindu and Muslim holidays, and Kwanzaa. For the anti-religious, this may not seem like a victory. But multiculturalism is one powerful tool toward defeating white Christian Nationalism, which takes no joy from these trends (even if they sometimes deploy the phrase “Judeo-Christian” as a seemingly diverse fig leaf to cover their xenophobia).
3. It really happened
I’m a history buff and I connect to my identity, in part, through history. Hanukkah is the only ancient Jewish holiday that commemorates historically provable events. It celebrates Judea gaining political independence for the first time in centuries, in 164 BCE, through a military revolt that contemporary sources verify.
In the Book of Maccabees, God is not a participant. All accomplishments were people-powered, though the Maccabees were certainly religious people, zealots even. Today, rabbis in all denominations outside ultra-Orthodoxy are willing to admit that the Hanukkah “miracle”—one day’s worth of Temple oil lasting eight days—was tacked on centuries later to downplay the military accomplishments of the eventually corrupted Hasmonean Dynasty. As far as religious miracles go, Hanukkah is about as awe-inspiring as seeing Jesus’s face in your toast. The real miracle was that a backwater province defeated a regional superpower in a fight for their religious freedom. It’s more the Jewish Fourth of July than the Jewish Christmas.
4. I only say what I believe
The unique innovation of Humanistic Judaism when it was founded over 50 years ago was to rewrite the liturgy for Jewish holidays and lifecycle events, replacing god-worship with humanistic philosophy. This has allowed tens of thousands of Jews to continue incorporating ritual practice while never having to say anything they felt was inauthentic or hypocritical to their beliefs.
Still, I understand why many secular Jews have simply walked away from any seemingly religious rituals. I also understand why plenty of atheist Jews continue using the traditional liturgy without believing what they’re saying, because those are the words our ancestors said. As long as it’s not hurting anyone, folks should do whatever they find most meaningful. For those who are seeking humanistic Hanukkah candle-lighting blessings (or “meditations”), one variation goes:
Radiant is the light in the world. Radiant is the light in humanity. Radiant is the light in Hanukkah.
5. It’s fun
6. It’s delicious
7. It’s connective
My kids, currently 10 and 7, have been wonderfully free of religious dogma and magical thinking from the get-go—they wouldn’t even buy into the tooth fairy when we first floated it. Yet they also enjoy all the cultural benefits of their multiple heritages—Jewish on my side and Japanese on their mom’s. For them, Hanukkah is about getting together with their cousins, eating terribly unhealthy foods like fried potato pancakes (latkes), jelly donuts (because also fried in oil), chocolate coins, playing the traditional spinning top game (dreidel), and collecting the unavoidable mass quantities of gifts.
My hope is that the holiday connects them not only to family but to heritage and history as well. They also study Japanese and visit their grandparents in Japan annually. And should they grow up to marry someone who also has mixed heritage, let’s say Guatemalan and Italian, then their children will have at least four rich heritages to explore. Culture is not a zero-sum game; the only goal is finding meaning, the only limitation hours in the day.
8. Light in a time of darkness
As many cultures do during these short December days, Hannukah is a way to bring light, quite literally, into a time of darkness. There is something primally soothing about watching a candle flicker, and light is a powerful metaphor for enlightenment and goodness. Humanists have incorporated it into a new December holiday, HumanLight. I’m all for new holidays—Festivus happens to fall on my birthday—and I especially understand why those who have been turned off or even hurt by religion would look for fresh starts. For me, repurposing aspects of a holiday from my own cultural heritage, drawing meaning and connection while jettisoning the religiosity, makes the most sense.
Wishing you happy holidays and a healthy New Year, however you celebrate!