CHRISTMAS OR NOT
The discussion within Judaism regarding Christmas is a complex one.
Indeed, Jewish memories die hard.
Throughout our history, there has been little reason to be joyous on Christmas. Often, the celebrated birthday of the rabbi named Yeshua ben Joseph has provided an occasion for our gentile neighbors to exercise hostility towards our people. Pogroms and other massacres were not uncommon.
So, the message throughout our history on Christmas Eve has been "lay low."
Jews in Eastern Europe generally spent Christmas in the safety of their homes. In some locales, Christian authorities prohibited Jews from appearing in public. Often, Jewish schools and synagogues were closed.
A tradition in the "old country" developed to play cards or chess on Christmas Eve. It even has a special name in our tradition, Nittel Nacht which is possibly an acronym for "Nolad Yeshu Tet L'tevet", meaning, "Jesus was born on the ninth of Tevet."
In modern times, some very unique Christmas related traditions have been adopted by American Jewry. These include going to the movies on Christmas Day, some rabbinically unauthorized trips to Chinese restaurants, or increasing volunteerism on Christmas Day -- enabling Christians to celebrate the holiday at home.
Some Jewish singles organizations hold dances known as Matzah Balls.
In Glen Cove, CTI has made it a tradition on Christmas Eve to order pizzas and deliver them both to the police station and to the fire house.
It is indeed a complex holiday. On one hand, it resonates within an older age group as a time of European persecution, harassment and discrimination, but for latter generations its recognition in some circles has become almost as American as Thanksgiving.
Increasingly, the holiday season has centered on thanking those who provide services during the years. These include letter carriers, and those who pick up our trash. It is a time to exchange presents with our non Jewish friends and neighbors, a time for parties, an occasion to reinforce ties with those of all faiths and beliefs, and to spread cheer.
It's hard to argue with that.
But in some ways, I find myself standing with traditionalists within the Christian community who bemoan the loss of the holiday's religious meaning. It has become so much about the showering of family and friends with materialism.
I recall earlier in life as a newspaper publisher in northern Canada facilitating the singing of carols at Heritage Park in Fort McMurray, Canada, because I sensed people were not in the "spirit." It had nothing to do with endorsing Christmas' theological roots, but rather in my youthful arrogance trying to turn the kavanah (intention) of my readers towards a more spiritual plain.
There is nothing wrong with our encouragement of Christmas as a festival of peace and fellowship. For more important to us as Jews is the inclination of humankind towards repairing a broken world.
Yet there is a danger as we enter the season of winter solstice that Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa will one day be morphed into a combined observance which some urban dictionaries already term Christmahanakwanzika.
And that for us is problematic.
For although on the surface these holidays appear to be similar, they are not.
And rather than trying to incorporate these holidays as one, we should be at least aware of, and embrace that each is different. We believe that God has no form and no physical needs. The idea of a "son of God" is problematic in Judaism.
Many schools within Judaism believe that a messiah, or anointed one, will arrive after humanity succeeds in creating a time of peace and harmony. The responsibility to perform Tikun Olam (repairing the world) is our obligation. Christian thought holds that the messiah has already walked the earth and will be returning to help restore order within an apocalyptic context.
Kwanzaa, an African-American festival established in 1967, focuses on seven core values which include unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
It is important that during this time of year, as always, we as Jews not only embrace our fellows, but also acknowledge our theological differences. It's what adds beauty to the world.
The great rabbi and founder of the Jewish Renewal movement Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that each religion on earth contributes a limb or organ to the body of humankind. There is so much to be learned from all faiths, and their religious and secular practices.
But let us also remember who we are as Jews: a unique people who carry a responsibility each day to heal a broken world. The term mitzvah does not mean good deed, rather it means commandment. And we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself.
The great scholar Ben Azzai was asked almost two thousand years ago what the most important line of the Torah is. He referred to the Book of Genesis saying "we are all descendants of Adam." We are each made of the same stuff, the same hopes and the same dreams.
Let us as Jews find that balance between participating in a more ecumenical world and pursuing our own destiny. Let us also ensure that the scars we bear from the "old country" do not block our path towards a more universal, tolerant and peaceful path for humankind.
For this I believe is the true will of God.
And happy holidays - wherever that sacred journey takes you.
Kol tuv (with all goodness)
Rabbi Irwin Huberman