For Jews in the Diaspora, December is the cruelest month. Here in America especially, the crass commercialism of Christmas culture overpowers people’s wallets and will, drowning everyone in a once-a-year cheer and kindness that feel not too sincere, all too fleeting, and far too insensitive to the growing diversity of the American complexion. I will never be reconciled to the cluelessness of so many Americans whose shallowness about the actual Christianity inherent in Christmas makes them even more clueless about other religions, Judaism in particular.
Before you assume that I am just another irascible Scrooge or you remind me that this is the price I must pay for not living in Israel, please understand one thing. I respect the fact that my Christian neighbors and friends can use Christmas as a time to reflect upon the importance of family and tradition, in much the same way that Jews, whether religious or secular, hold seders on Passover. However, what I found particularly discouraging this past winter holiday season was how popular culture continues to cast Judaism as some quaint but impotent poorer cousin of Christianity, an especially maddening example of Americans’ religious illiteracy. I am surprised at how surprised I have been during the last several weeks by the portrayal of Hanukkah as a kind of cutesy Jewish fetish of fried foods, cheesy klezmer music, and pretty gift wrappings: a not-so-vague reflection of American religion-lite that distorts, denudes, and defangs the depth and quality of Jewish historical experience and existential truth.
This is a well-meaning, but ultimately thoughtless form of cultural imperialism. Many Christians generally don’t know a thing about the Christianity they profess to celebrate in December. However, that doesn’t stop the majority culture from imposing upon the rest of us what it thinks we are or wants us to be, instead of getting to know who we really are as Jews or, generally, as non-Christians.
Thus, as a religious Jew, I am heartened when knowledgeable religious Christians can talk honestly about their religious perspectives. In doing so, they not only help me to understand them better, but also clarify why I am happy to be Jewish and not Christian. New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, recently interviewed the prominent evangelical pastor and theologian, Timothy Keller. He asked him about what he believes is authentic Christian belief, without which a person cannot call himself a Christian and without which a person cannot be redeemed by God. Dr. Keller was quite clear:
The Christian Church is pretty much inexplicable if we don’t believe in a physical resurrection…In general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary [that defines Christianity]…You imply that really good people (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe that anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness…Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for salvation who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. (New York Times Sunday Review, December 25, 2016.)
To be fair, Pastor Keller’s remarks are a small part of a much larger interview which was itself edited to fit the newspaper page. Elsewhere in the article, he makes clear that his thoughts cannot be considered the only Christian response. Nonetheless, his statements of faith are refreshing. I don’t agree with that faith, it makes no difference in my life, it has been abused in the past to persecute Jews and others, and I don’t want Christians to impose this faith on me or anyone else in the realm of culture and politics. Still, Pastor Keller is honest, secure and thoughtful about the meaning of Christianity for him and for the world as he understands his faith. He is able to articulate that faith as a foundation of a meaningful life rather than as a nonsensical afterthought on a Netflix series or as a bauble in a department store ad.
Pastor Keller’s remarks, as I mentioned above, also resonate for me in a very personal way: they remind me why I am committed to being Jewish as much as I am happy for people of other religions who are committed to being who they are.
They remind me that Judaism places more emphasis on this worldly salvation through doing mitzvot (the Torah’s commandments) than on other worldly salvation after death, as acquired through faith.
They remind me that, for Judaism, redemption happens not when the sin-laden individual unburdens her sins onto a savior but when we sinful, imperfect people help God to save the world by making it a better place.
They remind me that, in fact, for Judaism, one does not need to be Jewish to enter heaven. Quoting the winning opinion in an ancient Talmudic argument, the great teacher Maimonides makes clear that all those who are righteous — who adhere to the basic laws of human morality — have a place in the afterlife. (See his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:11. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 105a, specifically the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.)
They remind me that the most authentic religious universalism for me is, paradoxically, to be found in Jewish particularism. Christianity is transnational, which means that the benefits of Christian salvation are open to all people, beyond national and ethnic boundaries. However, that salvation is acquired only through Christian faith and not really through righteousness, as Pastor Keller explains it. The universalism of authentic Christianity, at least to my untrained eyes, is highly qualified. For Jews, membership in the Jewish people is not about personal salvation in the next life but about being a specific nation in an active covenant with God which can contribute to redemption for all people on earth in this life. One does not need to be Jewish to be part of that redemptive process, as Maimonides taught us. Yet one can join the Jewish people, and its part in that process, if one sincerely commits to doing so.
Beyond the tinsel and the tinny muzak, there still exists in modern American culture the opportunity for people of all faiths to listen to and learn from one another with depth and nuance. This opportunity is the exact opposite of the childish tendency of popular culture to dumb down religious values into a hybrid mush, out of a sincere but misguided commitment to liberal pluralism that is actually imperialist and quite illiberal. I am grateful to religious leaders like Pastor Keller. By being proud of who they are as Christians, they help me to be proud of who I am as a Jew.