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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Menorahs as a Secular Symbol???

I'm sure most of you have already seen this, the latest installment in the saga of the dreaded War On Christmas: 2006.

A recap: A Seattle Chabad rabbi, Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, made a request from Seattle airport officials to place a large Menorah alongside the Christmas trees that are traditionally displayed throughout the airport. According to airport officials, he threatened to sue if the Menorah display was not included. Airport officials, after a hasty meeting, concluded that the safest course of action (to avoid either being dragged into court or being forced to include the symbols from every other religion on the book in the airport holiday display) was to remove the christmas trees altogether. Which they did. To massive public outcry, shrieking and wailing about the War On Christmas, and much public finger-pointing and blame leveled at the aforementioned Chabad rabbi for his role in the tree removal. The Rabbi, claiming to be "appalled" at the airport's decision to remove the trees, explained his position as simply wanting to add a menorah to enhance the display. His words:
Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season
It's very nice that Rabbi Bogomilsky wanted to have a Jewish symbol alongside the christmas tree display. I understand where he's coming from. However, his suit to get it there relies on a 1989 Supreme Court decision ruling that Menorahs, along with christmas trees, are essentially secular, not religious, symbols, and are allowed to be displayed publicly if they are not part of a larger religious display. His lawyer out-and-out claims that the menorah is a secular symbol.

Is he kidding? An Orthodox Rabbi expects us to buy into the suggestion that a Menorah is a completely secular symbol along the lines of a christmas tree? What, exactly, is this Rabbi Bogomilsky going to be lighting next week with a Bracha, if not a Menorah - or perhaps, the question should be, what is he smoking when he claims it isn't religious? If the Menorah isn't the most identifiable religious symbol of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, then what is it?

Now, I have the utmost respect for the work that Chabad does in some of the most far-flung communities in the world. In many locales as well as university campuses, Chabad is Judaism. And that role is commendable. Chabad's outreach is usually so successful because of their emissaries nonjudgmental attitude toward those less observant than them. I have friends who credit Chabad with keeping then affiliated with Judaism because their local Chabad Rabbi was inclusive, yet didn't try to force-feed them Judaism. A great example was always the no-strings-attached famous Chabad Purim parties given all over the world. People could just show up and get trashed in the name of a Jewish holiday. What's not to like? Or the fact that I had acquaintances in college that were convinced by the local Chabad Rabbi of the importance of lighting Shabbos candles on Friday night - before they went out clubbing. Hey - I'm sure it's a lot easier for a religious skeptic - or airport officials, for that matter - to swallow lighting a menorah if it's become simply a secular or cultural symbol of Chanukah, and not a religious one. And I do believe that there is great value to drawing people in to Judaism by starting out with a milder level of demands on their religious observance.

But is all this watering down of Orthodoxy a good thing? The fact that an Orthodox Rabbi is willing to stand before a Seattle court and argue that a utensil that I consider an eminently religious one is actually completely secular - does that make for a proud day in our religion's history? Is it outweighed by the debatable benefit of having a 6-foot high menorah displayed next to a Christmas tree display?

No, I don't think it is.

79 Comments:

Blogger David said...

I'm appalled at the Rabbi's behavior. My full take on it is here, with followup here.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous farrockgrandma said...

Most holiday displays that I've seen in recent years include a Menorah. A six foot tree is overreaching a bit.
Chanuka presents an interesting paradox - it is one of our more minor holidays, yet it does include the inyan of 'persuma nisa'.
Anyway, they were calling that tree a "holiday tree." Does that mean that we'll still see it when Tu B'Shvat comes around?

2:36 PM  
Anonymous farrockgrandma said...

Sorry, I meant a six foot MENORAH,
not tree.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow. great point, om. you might think wow, we are in america, the 'goldene medina' because people would consider putting up a menorah next to a christmas tree perfectly normal. instaed, you show me how far into galus we really have sunk. that its more important to us get equal billing for the holidays and in holiday displays than it is to preserve our religion.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

a "holiday tree." Does that mean that we'll still see it when Tu B'Shvat comes around?

LOL! Wouldn't THAT be great?

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! How is the view from up there on your high horse? Not everyone can live in the ghetto of Far Rockaway – some people actually have to live in the real world where we don’t have 14 kosher pizza shops on one block or a bunch of Rabbis arguing about how many kosher supermarkets in one neighborhood are too many. I feel so bad for you……it must be so hard for you to be religious in such a difficult environment.

You should definitely make fun of Chabad and the services they provide to the ALL Jews – no questions asked. After all, if you’re not black hat, FR frum then you can’t be a real Jew, right? Thanks for the outreach. It’s nice to know you care.

2:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"some people actually have to live in the real world where we don’t have 14 kosher pizza shops on one block or a bunch of Rabbis arguing about how many kosher supermarkets in one neighborhood are too many. I feel so bad for you……it must be so hard for you to be religious in such a difficult environment."

what does that have to do with calling a menorah a secular symbol?

"You should definitely make fun of Chabad and the services they provide to the ALL Jews – no questions asked"

make fun of chabad? i see om praising chabad in this post actually.

and i agree with her point. i dont want to give up the menorah as a religious symbol just so that it can be in a holdiay display.

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right....this isn't making fun of Chabad....what was I thinking?

"A great example was always the no-strings-attached famous Chabad Purim parties given all over the world. People could just show up and get trashed in the name of a Jewish holiday. What's not to like? Or the fact that I had acquaintances in college that were convinced by the local Chabad Rabbi of the importance of lighting Shabbos candles on Friday night - before they went out clubbing."

You're right....this isn't making fun of Chabad....what was I thinking?

3:04 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...

Anonymous said...
Wow! How is the view from up there on your high horse? Not everyone can live in the ghetto of Far Rockaway – some people actually have to live in the real world where we don’t have 14 kosher pizza shops on one block or a bunch of Rabbis arguing about how many kosher supermarkets in one neighborhood are too many. I feel so bad for you……it must be so hard for you to be religious in such a difficult environment.


Not sure what in the world this comment had to do with my post, but I hope you feel better now.

3:05 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...


You're right....this isn't making fun of Chabad....what was I thinking?


I'm not making fun. I'm being straight-out honest about my experiences. I defy you to tell me that this phenomenon does not exist on college campuses all over America.

A bit defensive, are we?

3:06 PM  
Blogger David said...

I've seen multiple Chabad houses which are relatively close to universities, and none of the ones I have seen have been concerned about the ages of the students who drink heavily while there.

Outreach is an important and valuable thing, and Chabad has served in many places as a nucleus around which small communities can develop. For that they should be praised. However, not every action taken by Chabad globally or by individual Chabad Rabbis in particular is necessarily the best or above scrutiny.

I would argue that no valid mitzvah or outreach function is served by insisting that the SeaTac airport install an 8-foot high menorah (and threatening to sue them if they don't).

3:19 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

orthomom, your 'legal analysis' gave me a good laugh. simply put, you couldnt be more wrong.

the courts did not say, and have never said, a christmas tree is a secular symbol or that a menorah is a secular symbol. though they may seem to ignore reality at times, they are not that blind to it.

rather, they said that on public property if only one symbol is allowed (such as a christmas tree) then it violates the sepapration of chruch and state. however, should all symbols be permitted in that public area, then the 'scene' is not religions and rather secular in nature and thus permissible. it's not that any individual symbol has to be interpreted as secular, rather the scene as a whole.

so for example, a public display that includes a christmas tree, a menorah, and whatever athiests use as a symbol for the holidays is perfectly fine even if everyone says the first two are religious in nature.

there is more i have to say about this whole episode, but for now i just wanted to clarify that your premise for attacking the rabbi is just plain wrong.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

by the way, that's exactly why the airport acted as they did. i'm sure what happened in the hastily called meeting was that the airport's counsel informed them of their options: either put up most any dispaly people want, or take down the christmas trees and they chose the latter.

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

from the decision:
"t.

Although in Lynch v. Donnelly the Court used the three-part Lemon test to allow a city in Rhode Island to display a creche as part of a holiday display, the same did not hold here because the Pittsburgh display was not used in conjunction with seasonal decorations. Lynch had established what came to be called the "plastic reindeer rule" of secular context which the creche failed. "

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

from the article om linked:

"The U.S. Supreme Court had determined that menorahs, like Christmas trees, can be secular symbols if they are not part of a religious-themed display"

and:

"Craig Watson, the port's chief lawyer, said Bogomilsky's menorah likely fits the Supreme Court's definition of secular. "

to "s/o who actually knows the law", do you really?

3:43 PM  
Anonymous BrokenTelephone said...

OrthoMom, there are a lot of details about this story that have been exaggerated or altered for maximum media effect.

HERE ARE SOME FACTS FOR YOU ...

1) He didn't threaten to sue. After two months of no decision the Chabad Rabbi's lawyer sent them a legal brief explaining the precedence and informing them that there is legal backing to support the request.

2)It wasn't the Rabbi who for the most part was making the request, it was a man by the name of Mitchel Stein, who worked at the airport and thought since so many people come through there it would be nice if THIS year they ALSO had something to represent the Jewish Holiday.

3) He never told them to take down the tree's and never actually made any threat to do anything.

4) It was the airport people who called the media and told them their side of the story after holding a secret meeting to take down the decorations after their council had informed them that they would have to comply.

5) I happen to have first hand knowledge and you have no idea how badly this story has been blown out of proportion. Basically the media has turned this man into some sort of scapegoat, because there was a lack of War on Christmas stories and this "came close enough"

3:48 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

lol! you're responding with a quote from a news article?! just read the opinions (s/o quoted part of one of the many decisions you can read above).

anyway, even though from the very fact that a regular person such as yourself can read that line and misunderstand SCOTUS's approach, it's pretty close. The line you cite is trying to say that whether the symbol is secular or religoius depends on the overall display. For that sentence to make any sense it means the court did NOT rule the menorah is 'inherently' secular. as i said, even a politicized court is not that blind to reality.

oh, and yes, i do know the law.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Tzvee said...

I write about this very issue every year see http://tzvee.blogspot.com/search?q=menorah

excerpt

First, the menorah is not a 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, 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.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Al Gore said...

I don't think it can be definitely proven that a Xmas tree is a secular symbol.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Broken telephone. You may be right. But your points have nothing to do w oms post. She doesn't claim any of the points u say she does.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

al gore: exactly!

orthomom and most people not well versed in the law misunderstand the court's ruling. no court would ever say a christmas tree or a menorah is inherently secular. that's just plain silly.

again, there are a whole host of issues to address regarding this incident, but the one orthomom focused on is premised on an incorrect and absurd reading of the law.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Rabbi was on FOX News last night and wanted to just state his point that all he wanted was that there be ONE menorah in the whole airport and nothing else!!!!!

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon 3:56: huh? his points are entirely relevant to her post.

w/o speaking to their veracity, he claims the rabbi did not threaten to sue. her whole point is that the rabbi threatening to sue to have the menorah put up alongside the christmas tree as a secular symbol. therefore, her entire point is premised on the rabbi threanting to sue.

again, i dont know who is right, but anon 3:56's point is entirely on point.

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the rabbi claims he didn't threaten to sue, yet he has a lawyer to deal with this. That lawyer clearly says in his statement that the menorah is secular. If the rabbi wants to distance himslef from his lawyer, fine. Let him make a statement thereof.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"First, the menorah is not a 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."

I object to the above.

a. The Menorah has certainly been a central symbol of Judaism and continues to be so. Everything from ancient synagogue ruins to the seal of the State of Israel all express this point.

b. I am uncomfortable in having a secular court decide what is and what is not central to the theology of Judaism. That type of intrusion into religion is very troubling. If the justification for the Menorah is that the insertion of multiple religious symbols all cancel each other out to make the sum total secular, then so be it. But if we need to secularize the Menorah even if just in newspaper articles, if not necessarily in court, then we should pause to consider whether the gains of pirsumei nisei may indeed be negated.

RWM

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooh, om has a big strong arrogant legal scholar who 'actually knows the law' commenting here. Tell us, o legal scholar, do you have any opinion on om's post? Because otherwise, you have contributed zero, zilch, nada to the discussion. Thanks for gracing us with your arrogance. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Om, I agree on your point re the secularizing of the menorah. The state of affairs is sad. But this rabbi has been getting a bum rap. His actions have been blown out of proportion in terms of his ligitigousness. They haven't on the secular point, however.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous morris said...

ok. so we have all figured out that OM is not an attorney. I guess that she misread the law but her post is right on. do we as Jews want Chanukah to be secularized as the Chrisitan community has claimed Christmas is? Chabad is a religious movement that should not be promoting Jewish holidays and religious symbols as secular seasonal events.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous s/o who also can read the law (and can read too!) said...

no court would ever say a christmas tree or a menorah is inherently secular. that's just plain silly.

Well, it clear that's what his lawyer is saying. If the article linked here is not enough, there is this quote from the NY Sun:Mr. Grad said the court found that both symbols have developed secular significance. The lawyer called the menorah the rabbi wanted to erect "representational and iconic."

5:03 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

anon 4:44: i see lots of rhetoric but no substance. not sure what you want me to say??

anon 4:53: it's not that she's not an attorney. it's that her post CANNOT be 'right on.' your far tamer comments are closer to an interesting and possible debate as to what he's doing.

but OM says things such as "The fact that an Orthodox Rabbi is willing to stand before a Seattle court and argue that a utensil that I consider an eminently religious one is actually completely secular - does that make for a proud day in our religion's history?"

that is not what a/o will argue in front of a court. it's just wrong. she posted s/t based on faulty premises and she can either own up to it or not.

5:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Chabnick wanted to display an electric menorah

(a) Does any local 5t/FR "frum" person actually call an electric menorah anything other then a holiday symbol, unable to properly perform a religious function, and no different then a sign that says HAPPY HANAUKKAH (not the H and not the C). Or does a menorah have to be a religious symbol, because it is a menorah. The holiday has become so commercilaized that in my mind a "menorah" incapable of accomplishing the religious function, is nothing more then a "holiday symbol" and not a particuliarly religious one at that.

(b) Publically, The Airport authority did not object to the menorah, but the continuing obligation to accept "symbols" of other seasonal holiday's of others who want their celebrations noted, and the cost associated with the scrutiny that they would need to undertakle to determine the religious v non religious nature of the display. I don't necessarly agree with this approach and in fact I truly believe that there was a nefarious motive, "LOOK WHAT THE HEB MADE US DO", and that is exactly what happened. Shame on Seattle.

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again, people seem to confuse things that are Jewish as being religious and any thing else as being secular. I think that OM is part of this confused group.

A Christmas tree like a menorah does have a religious component. The courts have held it is the context that matters. A tree alone is not inherently a religious celebration, nut with a manger or chech it is. It is called a CHRISTmas tree for a reason. OM, just because it is not Jewish does not make it secular. Secular means not having to do with ANY religion.

An elecrtic menorah is not an inherently religiuos celebration, but if Rabbi B were to light an candle or oil menorah nightly and God forbid, say the brachot, that is different.

Which brings us to the local situation. Every year, the Village of Cedarhurst hots a menorh lighting, anybody complain about that?? No, even though they say brochot and invoke gods name, etc.

5:28 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...

that is not what a/o will argue in front of a court. it's just wrong. she posted s/t based on faulty premises and she can either own up to it or not.

Gosh you're obnoxious. "I can either own up to it or not"? Says who? You, the master of this comment section? Is there some rule posted here that says that obnoxious nitpicky comments that are not even on point have to be "owned up to" within a certain amount of time? Well, some us have to work for a living, and can't sit around all day reading comments. Shocking.

Now, regarding your brilliant legal analysis: who cares? The lawyer for the rabbi makes it very clear that he is making a legal case, based on what he interprets as the secular status of the menorah. As a matter of fact, the Rabbi makes this point exhaustively in this article, where he picks apart the difference in secular status between a standard menorah and an electric one:

Mr. Grad said the court found that both symbols have developed secular significance. The lawyer called the menorah the rabbi wanted to erect "representational and iconic."

The 8-foot candelabra can't be used in a religious ritual, Rabbi Bogomilsky said, because it lacks oil and relies instead on electric light bulbs. "It's UL-listed," he said.


The status of a menorah as a secular symbol is exactly the point here, and both the rabbi as well as the rabbi's legal representative make it clear that that is the basis of their request.

You can claim all you want that your nitpicking nulls the point of my post. Or that (horror of horror) my taking a legal opinion straight out of a news source instead of actually going to read the decision myself is somehow something to "own up to". But you're dead wrong, and perhaps you should "own up" to that.

5:29 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...


Which brings us to the local situation. Every year, the Village of Cedarhurst hots a menorh lighting, anybody complain about that?? No, even though they say brochot and invoke gods name, etc.


Right, but it's a Chabad event. Not a government sponsored one. And of course it's religious. Who would ever claim it wasn't. I'm not taking issue here with the fact that the Rabbi in Seattle wanted a Menorah in the airport. Gezuntaheit. I'm taking issue with the fact that he is trying to sell the religious significance of the menorah down the river in order to achieve that goal.

If the local Chabad Rabbi had to make that point in order to be allowed to light the Menorah in Cedarhurst park every year, I'd be annoyed at him too.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But for the grace of the Village Officials (and the power of the Orthio Voters) The village allows a religious service on its land, which I applaud, but.... I hope The ACLU is reading this blog.

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope The ACLU is reading this blog.


should say NOT

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

" Anonymous said...

But for the grace of the Village Officials (and the power of the Orthio Voters) The village allows a religious service on its land, which I applaud, but.... I hope The ACLU is reading this blog."

Right to assemble, stupid. no one says people cant have services on public land. Ever hear of tashlich? or sunday church services in central park? You sound like a fool. the ACLU could care less.

5:43 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

wow. if hypocricy concerns you at all then in the future you might want to consider separating your calling someone obnoxious from a post where you go to great lengths to be extremely obnoxious yourself.

not surprised instead of admitting youre wrong you throw a tantrum (you're obsession with, of all things, the phrase "own up to it" which you use no less than four times, is kind of sad. particularly as you use it once to create a strawman for an added insult. who said you had to respond asap??).

and, as usual, you ignore in your comments the words you use in your post. your post does not talk about adding in a 'secular element' to the menorah. instead it talks about making the menorah "completely secular."

2 examples below:
"Is he kidding? An Orthodox Rabbi expects us to buy into the suggestion that a Menorah is a completely secular symbol along the lines of a christmas tree?"
"The fact that an Orthodox Rabbi is willing to stand before a Seattle court and argue that a utensil that I consider an eminently religious one is actually completely secular - does that make for a proud day in our religion's history?"

not even quotes you cited above from the article, let alone the actual legal rule, suggest this is the case.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

ACLU locals have not objected to public menorahs in places like San Francisco where they are in places where just about any religious or non-religious display may be erected.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it seems like the rabbi forgot that we are in galus. i know america is great for jews but it is still galus and in galus we jews should keep a low profile and not get the goyim upset at us and make issues. this country is a cristian country and we should stop trying to make them put out menorahs. he should stoop making these issues.

5:53 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...

s/o who actually knows the law said...

wow. if hypocricy concerns you at all then in the future you might want to consider separating your calling someone obnoxious from a post where you go to great lengths to be extremely obnoxious yourself.


Call me a hypocrite. You're the one who came here first, guns blazing, with an obnoxious comment.

not surprised instead of admitting youre wrong you throw a tantrum (you're obsession with, of all things, the phrase "own up to it" which you use no less than four times, is kind of sad. particularly as you use it once to create a strawman for an added insult. who said you had to respond asap??).

You were obviously very concerned with my owning up to what you considered an egregious mistake. (I obviously didn't consider it one).


and, as usual, you ignore in your comments the words you use in your post. your post does not talk about adding in a 'secular element' to the menorah. instead it talks about making the menorah "completely secular."


Fair point. He doesn't want to make it "completely" secular. Just secular.

I will strike through the word completely in my post. That doesn't change my point, however. I personally am unwilling to give up the menorah's status as an eminently religious object in order to get it included in an airport display.

Now you can argue all you want that the Rabbi in question here didn't have to legally prove the menorah's secular status in order to get it included in the display, but he doesn't seem to know that, and he took great pains in numerous statements by both himself and his attorney to make the secular status of the menorah clear.

6:08 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

ok, so we're both obnoxious, you're a hypocrite and i was obnoxious first. i've got no problem with accepting things for what they are.

realizing the use of the word 'completely' both to open and close your point is wholly inaccurate on every level is a start. but you do focus on the actual law itself, not just the rabbi's positioning of the law. For example, you write, "However, his suit to get it there relies on a 1989 Supreme Court decision ruling that Menorahs, along with christmas trees, are essentially secular, not religious, symbols, and are therefore allowed to be displayed publicly if they are not part of a larger religious display."

look, if you meant to write something different than you wrote then fine. as i said from the outset, there are issues to discuss here that are debatable.

but if you want people to read what you actually write instead of what they think you meant then you can't start now saying 'dont read what i wrote, listen now to what i meant to write'

6:21 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...


but if you want people to read what you actually write instead of what they think you meant then you can't start now saying 'dont read what i wrote, listen now to what i meant to write'


I said nothing of the sort. I agreed that you made a fair point regarding my use of teh word "completely" - and immediately stuck the word through in the post.

I mean exactly what I said at the outset. Whether the Rabbi and his lawyer are properly informed regarding the law that they reference (and you say that they are not - fine), they chose to interpret it as requiring the menorah to have a secular, not religious, status. And I take issue with their willingness to ascribe the menorah such a status. That is the point I made in the post, and a point I continue to make.

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the actual details of the case law is irelevant to the point here. why dont you try to focus on the point here. the rabbi is selling out on judaism.

6:31 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...

For example, you write, "However, his suit to get it there relies on a 1989 Supreme Court decision ruling that Menorahs, along with christmas trees, are essentially secular, not religious, symbols, and are therefore allowed to be displayed publicly if they are not part of a larger religious display."



look, if you meant to write something different than you wrote then fine.


I took that (mis?)interpretation straight from the article, and I made that clear in an above comment. It's not a matter of "meaning to write something differently" so much as quoting an news source's interpretation of the law - one that you disagree with.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The rabbi backed down the trees are going back up.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's remember that in places as far flung as Calgary and Prague Chabad spells trouble and divisiveness for the local community. And don't forget the strange similarities between believing in a dead messiah that unites the Chabadniks with those others.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

"However, his suit to get it there relies on a 1989 Supreme Court decision ruling that Menorahs, along with christmas trees, are essentially secular, not religious, symbols, and are therefore allowed to be displayed publicly if they are not part of a larger religious display"

this sentence is wrong. his suit doesnt rely on stating that menorahs or christmas trees are inherently/essentially secular.


"Hey - I'm sure it's a lot easier for a religious skeptic - or airport officials, for that matter - to swallow lighting a menorah if it's become simply a secular or cultural symbol of Chanukah, and not a religious one."

and this was not the concern the airport officials stated. rather, it was having to put up symbols from and every group.



bottom line: you've confused a number of issues without realizing it. the issue as you now frame it is not really about the menorah. it's about chabad.

your problem is with a chabad guy (and perhaps chabad generally based on your college experience) and this incident with a menorah is just an example of your dislike for the approach many in chabad take to publicize judaism.

there's no reason to have a problem going in front of a court and arguing that a menorah should be permitted in public display (i dont need to do that b/c it's already ok).

youve confused and intertwined these issues, along with legal matters that now, apparently, are on the periphery.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous someone else who knows the law said...

To s/o who actually knows the law:

You make your interpretation sound like the only one. You are wrong. I know the law too. The 1989 decision most certainly does deal with secularity as a qualification for public displays. The ruling disallows the display of creches because they are wholly religious, as opposed to a menorah, which has a secular status of representing the "winter holidays" that accompanies its religious status.

The Rabbi is almost certainly relying on this aspect of the ruling, and he is certainly making the case that the menorah has a notable secular status.

I, like our blogmaster here, would prefer that our Rabbis spend their time snactifying our religious objects, as opposed to secularizing them so that they can be used for something as banal as an airport display.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

see your comment from 6:35. yes, i disagree with it and so i'm telling you now that its wrong.

certainly understand why you'd take it from the article (though if it's a direct quote you ought to give it proper attribution) but now you know that journalists always botch the actual legal issues. if you plan on using the legal issue to buttress or inform your point, dont use an article.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous s/o who actually knows the law said...

6:52: see my points above about the innacuracy of needing to show a menorah/christams tree is "completely" and "inherently" secular. iow, i, by and large, don't disagree with what you wrote.

6:57 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...

youve confused and intertwined these issues, along with legal matters that now, apparently, are on the periphery.

I may have intertwined them but I haven't confused them. I feel that they are related. I feel that this particular Rabbi was far too willing to loudly proclaim the secular status of a menorah, and I think the Chabad Rabbis I was in contact with throughout my college years were similarly too willing to water down many aspects of our religion. I see a trend here - and I don't like it.

6:57 PM  
Anonymous someone else who knows the law said...

"see my points above about the innacuracy of needing to show a menorah/christams tree is "completely" and "inherently" secular. iow, i, by and large, don't disagree with what you wrote."

well, i dont disagree with what our blog hostess says. so i guess were all in agreement then.

7:50 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...


certainly understand why you'd take it from the article (though if it's a direct quote you ought to give it proper attribution) but now you know that journalists always botch the actual legal issues. if you plan on using the legal issue to buttress or inform your point, dont use an article.


A) It isn't a direct quote.

B) The article is using an interpretation that you feel is wrong. You are entitled. However, as other commenters have noted, the interpretation in the article is certainly arguable.

C) The legal issue does nothing to buttress my point. It is a complete aside. My point is the Rabbi's argument, and it's one I (still) disagree with.

Again, nothing you have said is material to the point of my post.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

let me tell you all a story....

In the mid to late 80's i was the president of the Jewish Affairs Club at touro college when they were still at 30 E 44th Street.

I Wanted to put a menorah in the lobby of the school and they would not let me. I was told that if they put a menorah in the lobby they would have to to put a Xmass tree too. I pushed the issue and said that touro was a jewish school. They refused based on the fact that non jews were in touro. I asked again and said. Why is it that if a student who is a jew refuses to wear a kippah for what ever reason he is forced to wear one? why if you dorm in the cambridge house you have to keep kosher and shabbos? but to put a menorah in the lobby is a problem. you just cant win. look at touro now.

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lets put it in prespective. He wanted to put up an electric menorah. Hr woild never make a bracha on it, so maybe in his mind it is completly secular (just like lighting candles and going clubbing on friday night are ok, as long as you mean well). It like putting on tefinllin on 5th aveune, with the hookers standing next to you. That is the chabad attitude. If you give a little this time maybe next time you will give more. Good or bad it seems to work. THis Seattle guy is just a little to blunt.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great points. next this rabbi is going to say that when they put tefillin on passer-bys that its a secular act.

8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I heard this story, I wondered why an Orthodox rabbi would be requesting a chanukiah to be displayed alongside a Christmas tree. Most observant Jews I know know that Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas (and is in part about not assimilating) and are much more likely to challenge public Christmas displays than to ask for a chanukiah to be added.
So, asking for Chanukah to be represented as well, rather than ignoring or challenging the Christmas displays, seems to me to be something the less-observant Jews, the ones who have never heard of Shavuot, do. In doing so, they reinforce equating Chanukah with Christmas, and they validate religious displays on public property rather than keeping religion separate.
But after reading of this story once again, here, and being reminded that the person requesting the chanukiah is Lubavitch, I realize that it is usually the Lubavitch lighting town-square chanukiyot and involving themselves in other Christmas-like pubic displays for Chanukah.
So, then, it occurred to me that maybe it is because of outreach that the Lubavitch do this. As Chanukah is often the only Jewish holiday unaffiliated American Jews observe, perhaps the Lubavitch realize this and are either working to at least provide these Jews with representation of the holiday that interests them or are figuring that this is the best way to make contact with these Jews, later to be followed by a lesson in more important holidays.
Still, if this -- the strategy -- is the case, I wonder whether the Lubavitch themselves remain aware of this, or after all this time are beginning to themselves think this way as well regarding the importance of Chanukah.
It sure would have been nice had this rabbi worked as hard to get a sukkah put up in his local town square.
Also, Orthomom, while it is the menorah that is one of if not the symbol of the Jewish people -- from the Temple to the seal of the State of Israel -- the chanukiah is only a symbol of Chanukah.

12:19 AM  
Blogger orthomom said...


w/o speaking to their veracity, he claims the rabbi did not threaten to sue. her whole point is that the rabbi threatening to sue to have the menorah put up alongside the christmas tree as a secular symbol. therefore, her entire point is premised on the rabbi threanting to sue.

again, i dont know who is right, but anon 3:56's point is entirely on point.


First of all, the comment about whether the Rabbi threatened to sue or not is NOT on point, as that doesn't change that fact that he called the Menorah secular - which is what I objected to. I didn't actually pass any judgement whatsoever on the lawsuit aspect - just the claims of the menorah's secular status.

Second, regarding whether the Rabbi actually threatened to sue, you are wrong on that as well. The Rabbi himself admits in today's NY Times that he threatened a lawsuit:

Rabbi Bogomilsky said the threat of a lawsuit was meant only to show seriousness. “It wasn’t about suing; we never filed anything, and made it very clear that we are not going to file,” he said. “We said that we have the option. We said we’re getting close to Hanukkah and we need to know what your decision is, and they jumped the gun and said, ‘We can’t deal with it, we’re going to remove everything.’ ”

He may be saying he never actually planned to sue - but he certainly admits here that he threatened a suit.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an attorney, I can say that OrthoMom's analysis of the 1989 decision is perfectly in line with the actual decision.

I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.

9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fight or Light?
Controversy and Irony at SeaTac Airport

By Yanki Tauber
Public menorah lighting in downtown Seattle, circa 1985
Public menorah lighting in downtown Seattle, circa 1985

One thing I've come to realize is that many of us have an innate, enduring loyalty to our preconceptions. We'll stick with them through thick and thin, no matter what reality sends our way.

I first realized this some twenty years ago when a friend and I, as two young Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students, spent our summers canvassing the state of Montana looking for Jews. We'd drive from town to town--some of which only had one or two Jewish families--and try to do our bit to encourage Jewish identity and observance.

We were quite a curiosity, and were often featured in the local newspaper. The publicity proved useful in both drawing local Jews out of the woodwork and gaining us a welcome response when we called on people.

One thing irked me though about these newspaper stories. After spending an hour lecturing the reporter on Jewish identity and explaining about Shabbat, kosher, tefillin and mezuzah--what did s/he write about? About the "Two Hasidic Men Wearing Traditional Hasidic Black Hat and Long Black Coat" who've rolled into town.

The black hat part was true. Below the neck, however, we wore ordinary business suits. In all fairness to the reporters, these do tend toward the darker end of the color spectrum. Still, we weren't in town to promote traditional hasidic garb, and we'd have much preferred that the article focus on the more substantive parts of our message.

So one day we left our hats in the car. My partner wore a light grey suit to the interview, and I put on the most light-colored garment I owned--a light-tan plaid sports jacket.

Sure enough, the next day's paper ran a full-sized photograph of two hatless, light-jacketed young men posed in front of the newspaper building. One held a pair of tefillin, and the other a Shabbat candlestick. The caption under the photograph read: "Tauber, 21, and Begun, 22, two hasidic rabbis sporting the traditional black hat and long black coat, visit Montana on mission."


I was reminded again of how attached people can be to their preconceptions when seeing the news reports on the menorah controversy at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The irony is that Rabbi Bogomilsky and his colleagues are squarely on the very opposite side of the debate... First the facts: Seattle Port Authority consultant Mitchell Stein, along with Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, a Seattle-based Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, wanted to erect a Chanukah menorah at SeaTac Airport. The airport already had 14 large Christmas trees set up in various places throughout their terminals.

SeaTac is a major international gateway; why not share the menorah's message with the tens of thousands who pass through it? There's a public menorah in Red Square. At the Eiffel Tower. Inside the Brandenburg Gate. And in thousands of places throughout the United States and across the globe. Washington State's own governor is proudly hosting a menorah lighting ceremony in the capitol during Chanukah.

But the folks in charge at SeaTac didn't want a menorah. After weeks of stonewalling, bureaucratic double-speak and suddenly canceled meetings by Port brass, Rabbi Bogomilsky's lawyer, seeking to get the Port's attention, warned of possible legal action. The airport's now infamous response was to.... remove the Christmas trees, claiming that they wouldn't be able to handle the onslaught of religiously diverse requests.

"Rabbi Forces Removal of Christmas Trees" screamed the headlines. For the first 24 hours after the story broke, the news outlets, reflecting statements being made by airport officials, actually reported that the rabbi was "offended" by the trees and had threatened to sue to have them removed. Eventually the stories themselves became more factually correct, but the original slant remained, and most viewers and readers were left with the impression that all this was part of what's lately being called the "War Against Christmas," spawning reams of hate mail to Jewish organizations and websites across the country.

Some of the news stories had an almost surreal quality to them: the rabbi would be quoted insisting that he has nothing against the trees, that he never in any way implied that he would sue to have the trees be removed, and that he is simply fighting for the right to put up a menorah; yet as he speaks, we see the news banner on the screen behind him: "Rabbi Threatens Lawsuit; Christmas Trees Removed." The reporter interviews the rabbi, asking his prepared question and then delivering his prepared sign-off, as if completely oblivious to what his interviewee has actually said.

It seems that there isn't much you can do to separate a person from his beloved preconceptions: apparently, some reporters and news editors already "knew" that the rabbi is against the trees, and once they knew that, nothing--not even their own reportage--was going to change the way they present the story.

Even now, when the trees are back up, the rabbi promised not to sue (at least not this year), and the airport has (sort of) intimated that they may respond positively to his request.... next year (maybe), the media continues to spin the "War Against Christmas" story and the hate mail continues to pour in.


The irony is that, for the last 25 years, there has been an ongoing debate within the Jewish community on the very issue of religious displays in public places during the winter holiday season--with Rabbi Bogomilsky and his colleagues squarely on the very opposite side of the debate than the side that's being attributed to him.

The sight of one menorah burning proudly through the night will do more for Jewish continuity than the removal of 1000 Christmas trees... There are 300 million people living in America, a large majority of whom are proud Christians; among them live about 5 million Jews. Come December, trees and other holiday paraphernalia blossom forth throughout the length and breadth of the land. Many Jews feel challenged by this phenomenon. "How can I raise my child to feel secure in and proud of his Jewishness," they wonder, "when he's confronted by these displays in every store window, hotel lobby and village square? How can I myself avoid feeling resentful, left out, discriminated against?"

Not long ago, the answer for many was: We'll fight the trees! We'll take them to court, we'll cite the Establishment Clause, and get all religious symbols removed from the public domain.

Chabad-Lubavitch took a different tack. Don't fight to remove the trees--put up menorahs! Don't direct your efforts to make America "less Christian"--work to celebrate America's freedom to encourage Jews in their Jewishness. Would not a single positive message be so much more effective than a thousand un-messages? Would not the sight of a single menorah burning proudly through the night do more for Jewish pride and Jewish continuity than the removal of a thousand trees?

Today, most of the Jewish community has been won over to this view. But it wasn't so long ago that Chabad-Lubavitch encountered vehement opposition for spearheading the "shower them with light" approach. I remember one particular year in the mid 1980's when I was involved in helping organize the activities surrounding the public menorah lightings during Chanukah in Seattle (yes, the very same Seattle). A national Jewish organization took the city to court to try and force them to revoke their permission for Chabad-Lubavitch to put up the menorah. They were actually quite apologetic to us: "Please understand, we have nothing against your menorah, but we're suing the city to make them take down the Christmas trees and crèches, so in all fairness, we need to fight the menorah too..."

So, irony of ironies, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi trying to put up a menorah is portrayed in hundreds of newspapers and television broadcasts from coast to coast as... the man who made SeaTac Airport remove the trees.


Shamefully, the airport is still obfuscating about why it is one of the only places in the United States to deny a menorah request. Hopefully in the short time left between now and Chanukah they will "see the light."

But if there's a lesson here for the rest of us, it may simply be: don't presume. Don't think that you already know what your fellow human being is all about, what he or she stands for, what s/he wants to achieve. If we'd listen to each other more, we might actually like what we hear.

Happy Chanukah!

chabad.org

7:25 PM  
Anonymous ToddV said...

A Catholic Blog take on the issue...

http://www.markshea.blogspot.com/2006_12_01_markshea_archive.html#116602195938725791

8:46 PM  
Blogger Goy Guy said...

You see the problem here, is that so many people are nuts.

I'll leave the debate on whether or not the public display of a menorah is good or bad for the Jewish people to the Jewish people. But it is certainly a religious symbol. And personally I don't have a problem with it. What does it matter to me? I think the giant flaming menorah in Cedarhurst Park is pretty cool. Hey, no one's harrassing "us" when we're singing Christmas carols around the gazebo, are they? The Nativity scene in the park has been vandalized a couple of times, but I'm sure it's not by some religious zealots. And none of our neighbors has filed any lawsuits to have it removed from public property.

With all the BS around the Five Towns everyone still manages to get along well enough that no one's suing anyone over OUR public displays of religious symbols, even with lawyers a dime a dozen around here. It'll be a sad day indeed when some lawyer is standing on a ladder in the park seeing if the menorah is taller than the Christmas tree ;-)

Happy Hanukkah everyone. Maybe I'll see you in the park on Sunday. Caroling and hot chocolate around 4. Menorah lighting and donuts to follow :-)

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, I have to tell you that in my hometown of Baltimore, there is a phenomenon called the Chanukah house, a very elaborate decorated residence on Park Heights Ave. Every year the "Community" (That is the Orthodox, and right wing Orthodox, at that) has a public menorah lighting ceremony. This involves closing the street for the festivities, and the provision of a temporary grandstand by the city. I attended last year, and Mayor (soon to be Governor) O'Malley showed up, along with State Senator Galdden, Governor Erlich's Court Jew, and a few other politicians who represent the neighborhood. The whole event was a shameless display of government involvement with religion, though the spectacle of seeing a guy named O'Malley, not to mention the African American Senator Gladden, recite the Chanukah blessings was worth standing in the cold for an hour.

Of course, one could argue that blessing recited by a Gentile are not valid, so the even was cultural, not religious. On theother hand, maybe the blessings are valid -- after all, the Roam Emperors used to send sacrifices to the Beit HaMikdash, that's the whole point of the Kamtza-Bar Kamtza story.

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