About those 'secular' menorahs

When it comes to decorating tabernacles and temples, the God of Israel cares about the fine details.

Consider these Exodus instructions: "Thou shalt make a candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work shall the candlestick be made: his shaft, and his branches, his bowls, his knops, and his flowers, shall be of the same. And six branches shall come out of the sides of it; three branches of the candlestick out of the one side, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side."

Counting the center candlestick, this created a unique candelabrum with seven lamps, a number that in scripture symbolizes holiness and completeness. The result is a shape familiar to anyone who has studied religion, liturgy and art. It is also a crucial symbol in America's debates about the role of public faith in the month of December.

"The menorah is the premier symbol of Judaism, especially if the goal is to symbolize the Jewish faith," said Steven Fine, visiting professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York City.

While many assign this role to the modern Star of David, this scholar of art and archaeology begs to differ. The weakness of the six-pointed star is also its strength, Fine explained. It has no historic meaning and, thus, can be used by every imaginable kind of Jew, from Orthodox believers to those who choose to assimilate into secular cultures.

"You could not say that about the menorah and that's the point," said Fine. "The menorah is different because of its deep roots in the Jewish faith itself. ... For the prophet Zechariah, it represented the very eyes of God watching over us in our lives. You can't get more religious than that."

And there's the rub. We live in an age in which government officials -- local, state and national -- are wrestling with holiday trees, menorahs, creches, angels, ears of corn, Santa statues, plastic snowmen and a host of other secular and sacred objects that church-state partisans keep dragging into the public square. The result is what columnist Jonah Goldberg calls "Christmas Agonistes," a condition produced by some cliffhanger decisions at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s.

There are few guidelines carved in stone. The court did establish what many activists call the "reindeer rules" that allow displays of religious symbols on public property as long as they are surrounded by other symbols, which are usually borrowed from pop culture.

Another ruling said that most nativity scenes are "religious" while most menorahs are "cultural." Following this logic, many educators forbid the singing of religious Christmas songs, while teaching students to sing Hanukkah songs about the "mighty miracle" that allowed Jewish rebels long ago to defeat their Greek and Syrian oppressors.

Jewish tradition teaches that when it came time to open the recaptured temple, only one container of pure oil could be found for the holy lamp. However, this one-day supply burned for eight days. Thus, menorahs used at Hanukkah -- which begins this year at sundown on Dec. 25 -- have eight candles or lamps.

It's easy, said Fine, to understand why some people have their doubts about court rulings that say the menorah is now a "secular" or "cultural" symbol.

In his book "Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World," the historian notes that through the centuries: "The menorah became the marker of Jewish religious space, Jewish bread, Jewish tombs, occasionally Jewish homes and -- when worn as jewelry -- Jewish bodies. This practice continued from late antiquity through the Middle Ages and into modern times. ...

"Mosaics and screens that in a church context might be decorated with a cross were adorned with menorahs in synagogues -- and were often made by the same artisans for both religions. The menorah and the cross were thus twinned symbols, both serving their communities as markers separating them from one another."

At the same time, it is also hard to understand why some religious believers now celebrate when courts declare their sacred symbols safe, neutral and tame, said Fine.

"Who could have imagined anyone claiming that the menorah is a secular symbol? Then again," he said, "who could anyone have imagined that we would ever face this kind -- this degree -- of secularization. That's something for Jews to think about."