Light a Candle for Understanding

December 18, 2014
This time of year, it’s hard not to be drawn into conversations about the place of religious expression in public life. Christmas decorations abound, and religious minorities play up the celebration of a winter holiday to stake out a place in their communities. There is always a conversation about how important Hanukkah is in the Jewish tradition, probably a result of the effort I described to feel represented in a community or society where there is a widely-celebrated religious holiday. Often, communities, local governments – particularly schools – also struggle with this question of representing different religions. The December Dilemma, as it is often called, describes the often uncomfortable conversation parents, students and other community members have to have about how not to make people feel alienated in their community. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"66836","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignleft wp-image-20650","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"155","height":"216","alt":"graph on pew survey findings"}}]]Underneath all this is also the ongoing tension about the religious and cultural significance of these holidays. While certain holiday traditions might have only cultural meaning for some, it does not negate their religious roots and the religious meaning they have for many other people. For those reasons, the December Dilemma also covers the appropriate place of religious symbols in public spaces. In County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1988), the Supreme Court ruled that religious symbols could not stand alone in a way that conveyed government support or endorsement, but the Court also held that not all religious celebrations on government property violated the Establishment Clause. The church-state separation question continues on over the appropriate place of Christmas trees, nativity scenes, menorahs and many other religious symbols on public property. As people around the world come together this December to celebrate holidays in their tradition, may we all be reminded of the importance of being inclusive of all faiths and non-faiths, while ensuring that the laws of the land are respected and protected. As a quintessential religious minority, Jews know the importance both of church-state separation and of religious freedom, which reinforce each other by ensuring that no one religion is imposed on any other, and that all people are able to live according to the teachings of their faith. Over the remaining nights of Hanukkah, may we light our candles with these thoughts in mind.

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