If a person is Jewish and Christian, should she recite the She-he-che-yanu blessing at Christmas time? A friend of mine recently related to me that his eight year old daughter asked exactly this question one morning. Since it came from this girl, a bright third grader being raised in a strongly committed Jewish home, I had to pause to consider what possibly motivated her to ask it. What might it indicate about the ever-evolving identities of American Jews, both what we already know and what we have yet to understand? With a large percentage of American society about to celebrate Christmas and often clueless about why Jews should not behave like Christians, I find her query intriguing and its implications disturbing.
She-he-che-yanu is the Hebrew blessing recited, among other occasions, upon celebrating specific Jewish holidays for the first time in a Jewish calendar year. It is our uniquely Jewish expression of gratitude to God for keeping us alive from year to year so that we can celebrate a specific holiday once again. My young student made a logical connection between celebrating a new occasion and reciting a blessing of thanks.
Her question also revealed her rather youthful assumption that being Jewish and Christian simultaneously is a reasonable path toward a personal identity. This is not necessarily surprising for a child growing up well integrated into the current American religious and cultural landscape. Some or many of her friends might identify themselves this way, since they are growing up in intermarried families. My teacher, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes about hybridity, the cultural perspective that identity is distinctly personal, malleable, and easily mixed and matched with other identities. An eight year old living in America might think about the world in this manner because no matter how integrally endowed she is with a Jewish identity, her emerging experience of the world is multicultural, pluralistic, and hybrid.
What is troubling is how this kind of “mix and match” thinking becomes the basis for adult Jewish identity, especially when it is not grounded in serious Jewish education and knowledge. It actually downplays or denigrates the value of Jewish ethnic distinctiveness and responsibility, because it encourages a person to sample various fragments of identities without actually committing to one. It asserts that a person can be Jewish and Christian, can say She-he-che-yanu on Christmas Eve if she feels moved to do so, and should never be judged for the quality of her Jewish commitments. Add to this the profound secularization of American religion (“Christmas is just a nice winter holiday”), and what results is a Jewish identity that may seem rich in diversity yet which is dangerously poor in its sense of Jewish solidarity and is dangerously shallow. However, the ongoing life of the Jewish people and our values requires much, much more than casual, fragmented encounters by individual Jews with Jewish experiences that have been watered down by the powerful influences of the non-Jewish world.
For those of us who lead American Jewish communities, “mix-and-match” Jewish identity certainly does not come as a surprise. However, there is hope. As any rabbi working with real Jews can attest, beyond all the statistics bemoaning the shifting, perhaps wavering identities of American Jews, lies the opportunity to give them the tools to celebrate Judaism by building relationships and authentic Jewish dialogue with them. I imagine that if my young student were an adult asking me the above question, I might respond to her in the following way:
She-he-che-yanu contains ancient words that celebrate life and its special occasions as God’s gifts. As such, it certainly could resonate with anyone, Jewish, Christian, another religion or even someone who has no religious affiliation. These words beautifully reflect the universalistic and humanistic dimensions of Judaism. Yet this prayer of gratitude did not come from the pen of just any poet, but of a Jewish poet who saw the world through the very specific lenses of Jewish teachings and life. Whoever that poet was, he or she expressed these very general human feelings of gratitude using the specific religious ideas, language, and experiences of the Jewish people. Can and does Christianity do this too? Yes, and it does so beautifully in its own way for Christians. We Jews can appreciate and even be inspired by our friends’ and neighbors’ religious values without needing to call them our own, because our own values are valuable enough!
You are living in a culture that offers you almost unlimited choices; at least in some important respects, you are free to construct your adult identity as you wish, without being tied to the Jewish past from which you came. That is why I encourage you to continue to make that past your present, and to insure it as your future children’s future. The options for you within Judaism are wide and varied, and I am ready to help you choose thoughtfully and knowledgeably.
An old legend teaches that God redeemed the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery because we refused to discard our Jewish names and our Hebrew language, and because we maintained our moral integrity as Jews. As a result of our fierce, particular refusal to become something other than who we were, we became the universal model for all people seeking the dignity of freedom. Likewise, by being ever so slightly apart from the world as a Jew, you get to be a valuable part of the world, and to make a difference in it.
So, rejoice that your Christian friends celebrate life and family through Christmas! Save She-he-che-yanu for the Jewish seasons of our joy, through which we say thank you to God for the gift of being Jewish.