I know it’s dicey to write a critical reflection on Jews embracing Christmas. Hearing the inevitable chorus of “intolerant Scrooge” certainly gives me pause. But seeing a piece in The CJN this winter holiday season by Michael Taube (Jews and Christmas: enjoy the holiday) urging fellow Jews to celebrate the wrong holiday was too painful to ignore.
My concern here is not, as Taube argues, an “obtuse hang-up” about Christmas. In a world where ideas, beliefs and religious expression have real meaning, it’s simply disingenuous to ignore those intrinsic definitions and replace them with whatever just feels cozy. Christmas is not a universal wintertime celebration of gift-giving, lights and tree-decorating. It’s a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, the Christian Messiah.
But by all Jewish standards, Jesus was not the Messiah.
The magnetic attraction of Christmas for some Jewish people is not hard to understand in light of Prof. Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments of the 1950s and Maimonides’ dictum that people are profoundly influenced by their surroundings. There is likely an inverse relationship between the strength of this pull and the degree to which Jews identify with the core teachings of Judaism.
To be sure, tolerance of others is an incredibly vital trait, one that we should strive to cultivate within ourselves and our children. But is there a need to embrace the religious traditions of other faiths in order to be tolerant and respectful? That can only happen when we no longer have respect for our own values and heritage. We can only embrace everything if we ourselves stand for nothing.
The propensity to get detoured to foreign spiritual pastures is a litmus test indicating that we’re just about running on empty. There is a well-known story of an accident that took place at a railroad crossing. A train crashed into a car, severely injuring the driver. He eventually sued the train company. At the trial, the signalman testified that he had given the driver ample warning by waving his lantern back and forth for nearly a minute. The court believed his story, and the suit was dismissed. Afterward, the signalman was congratulated for his testimony and doing so well under cross-examination. He winced and replied, “I was afraid he was going to ask if my lantern was lit!”
The dynamic light of Judaism has fuelled the survival of our people for more than 3,000 years. Distilled in the wisdom of the Torah, this light has numerous hues that have resonated with our people in various ways. Some are drawn to its mysticism and pathways to developing a personal relationship with God. Others are attracted to its practical wisdom and guidance on personal and spiritual refinement. People of great idealism have been fueled by the Torah’s vision of tikkun olam – perfecting the world. But without a passionate connection to our indigenous light, we are apt to be drawn elsewhere.
Rabbi Kalman Kalonymous Shapira, martyred in the Warsaw Ghetto, presciently expressed this in his small volume Tzav V’Ziruz: “The soul of each person loves to feel. The soul yearns not only for feelings of joy, but will also be drawn to morose and terrifying feelings. Emotion is as much a need of the soul as food is to the body. The person who fulfils this need with passionate prayer and study is nourishing their soul properly. But prayer and study without emotion will leave a vacuum that will drive the soul to search for emotion anywhere – even in inappropriate places.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk used to quip that he didn’t avoid doing the wrong thing because it was wrong, but because there was no time. And Christmas is a holiday that Jews shouldn’t have time for.
Rabbi Michael Skobac is the director of education and counselling for Jews for Judaism Canada.