Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mixing Christmas and Hanukkah?

Every year, Hanukkah and Christmas occur in close proximity to each other on the calendar. This year was one of those rare years when Hanukkah ended well before Christmas. Despite their close proximity, the two holidays are completely separate. Christmas commemorates the birth of the founder of Christianity, although the actual date of birth of Jesus has not been established with any ironclad certainty. Hanukkah celebrates the liberation of the Holy Temple, the Bet HaMikdash from Greek occupation, which involved cleansing it of idols and reinstituting the order of services. Each holiday is part of a calendar in which each holiday has its meanings and traditional observances.

The New York Times presented a picture of converts to Judaism at Christmas time longing for the holiday they had given up in an article published on Thursday, December 25. It was rich in personal details and anecdotes. It was also incomplete. Details such as the following.

"Though Ms. Jett usually goes to her mother’s house for Christmas, this year, her mother came to New York instead, and Ms. Jett and Mr. Silver decided to invite several friends — they affectionately called them “Jewish orphans” — over for dinner. They planned a traditional Christmas menu of bourbon-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, roasted broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans and yams, cooked by Mr. Silver, who works for a real estate investment firm and is the designated chef in the relationship."

It is fairly obvious that even the menu, with ham as the centerpiece shows that "Judaism" was something marginal and superficial to Ms. Jett and Mr. Silver. It also shows a confusion about (or indifference to) Jewish belief and tradition as well as Christian tradition. There is a body of tradition with each holiday that does not automatically harmonise because two people want to share a last name and a tax return.

I converted to Judaism 30 years ago. In my neighbourhood are enough people who have converted to Judaism to fill a medium size shul to capacity. The majority maintain respectful and regular contact with their families who remained Christian. All celebrate the full calendar of Jewish holidays.

I can speak for myself, and my experience is not unusual. Our family goes according to the Jewish calendar, with holidays and birthdays. I go out of my way to work on Christmas and New years. I keep regular contact with my family, and wish them well on their holidays. I do not tie giving of presents to Hannukah or to Christmas. Neither are common denominators between me and my parents and siblings. I do give presents to express feelings for and understanding of the person to whom I am giving a present. I tell them to call it whatever they want. It is an expression of a continuing bond and memory of shared experience.

My mother used to express sadness that I could not eat the same food as the rest of the family. I would tell her that I was there to spend time with her and enjoy her company, that the food is incidental. There was some tension about rejecting the faith she raised me in. My response has been to focus on those portions of her cultural heritage that did not conflict with my religious beliefs. Over the years, this worked out. The love and respect from my children was reassurance that she is truly loved and respected.

Every person has their inner life, their family life and their communal life and professional life, as well as their relationship with G-d. Balancing all these factors is a challenge we all face. The needs of the family must be met even as one is immersed in making a living. The concerns of the community can not be completely ignored either. Everything needs to be balanced.

There is an expression that is used by Catholics. "Cafeteria Catholicism" means picking and choosing what one believes in that faith. It has become very popular in other faiths as well, including Judaism. The danger in such an approach is its superficiality. Rather than taking an idea apart, challenging it and analysing it, one simply tosses it back in the bin at the department store of religious thought and looks for something with more appeal. This is not an approach that will yield any deep understanding of a belief system. It will yield a patchwork quilt of religious beliefs that might make a nice security blanket that is not terribly challenging.

I once showed my rabbi a book of Jewish quotations. He pointed out that the selection of quotations was itself a statement of a general outlook, that the quotes were not truly random. He did not mean it in a negative way, but suggested that I use an appealing quotation as a springboard for further study. Pick and choose religion might be "Jackism" or "Judyism", but it should not be confused with Christianity, Judaism or whatever other faith we choose to call it.

What is wrong with having your personal religion? Why give up one's independence? If one's god always validates you, never disagrees with you or challenges you, it might be god created in one's image. There were people in biblical times who soothingly told the people how wonderful they were. They were called false prophets.

I want a faith that will help me swim against the tide, a religious belief system that will even help me fight myself when that is necessary. I want to be the type of person who won't join a lynch mob. I want the courage to be a holdout juror. While I'm waiting for such episodes of moral fortitude, I'll settle for not joining in the office gossip and changing the subject instead. I'll also settle for writing a check to a deserving charity even though I'm feeling real stingy.

A religious calendar that has a fast day or restrictions on my conduct that won't bend to our rationalisations may be inconvenient. But it is what we need.

The Germans in World War II had belt buckles that said "Gott Mit Uns" (God with us) It sounded like a god you pack in your knapsack with your k rations and weapon. It sounds like a rubber stamp god that you carry with you rather than one that you follow.

A lot of Christians object to their holidays being stripped of religious connotations. I object to the same thing being done to Judaism. Secularising a religious holiday does as much for religion as a taxidermist does for wild life. It creates something pretty to look at that has no life.

It is possible for people with mutually exclusive theologies to agree on a code of good conduct. American society has evolved in that direction and functions remarkably well. We have a remarkable level of civility that has lasted with blessedly infrequent interruptions for most of our history.

I believe that G-d is much greater than our understanding could possibly be. There will be righteous redeemer who will resolve our doubts. Until then, proceeding according to common commandments, we thank G-d know how to behave towards each other, even if we disagree about theology.

I am happy for my Christian neighbours, friends and family that they have a tradition they are happy with. I feel the same about my own path. A holiday season based on cultural envy hardly seems rewarding or meaningful Ultimately, the best way to be a friend is to first be yourself.

Heartfelt best wishes to all on your respective holidays.

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