If years were paintings, ours would hang prominently in the Gallery of the Grotesquely Not Normal. But a few weeks still remain. As the year draws to a close, Thanksgiving may have arrived just in time to restore some sorely needed normalcy to American life.
Beyond the festivities — our community is fortunate to have two annual harvest festivals, the first being Sukkot — Thanksgiving stands for a set of values and norms. It is the secular holiday that best represents all that is right and good in America. I say that both as an unhyphenated American and, even more so, as an American Jew.
While Thanksgiving’s colonial origins and its institution as a national holiday have an informal religious basis — “a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe,” in the words of Lincoln’s 1864 proclamation — in its current form, Thanksgiving is anything but Christian. By definition, it is an inclusive celebration. And that is precisely Thanksgiving’s special appeal to members of all faiths and ethnicities, including observant Jews. It is an American holiday with a universal spiritual theme. You don’t even have to be religious to love Thanksgiving.
The contrast to Christmas, for example, could not be clearer, and the differences begin with holiday greetings. In December, most of us are used to saying and hearing “Happy Holidays.” While this expression successfully avoids alienating its recipient, it may also seem artificially neutral and ambiguous, even insipid — a blurring of legitimate religious distinctions between Americans. And that is by design. But Late November is different — Americans of all stripes can exchange enthusiastic “Happy Thanksgiving” wishes without the slightest hesitation (To be clear, I would never trade in “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas.” Let’s hope that respect for religious pluralism remains a pillar of American culture).
Aside from celebrating all that Americans, and American Jews in particular, have to be thankful for, Thanksgiving is a reminder of other quintessential American values — they happen also to be Jewish values — which may be even more fundamental than gratitude. These are best illustrated by considering the Hebrew word for gratitude, hoda’a.
The word has multiple layers of meaning. First, and most essentially, le-hodot means to accept or acknowledge, as in modeh al ha-emet — admitting the truth when you are shown to be mistaken (one of the seven signs of a true scholar, according to Mishna Avot). Thanksgiving is the appropriate time to celebrate honesty, intellectual humility, and trust — a function of honesty — without which relationships cannot last and civilized society is impossible.
Our age has been called “post-factual” and our political culture described as “post-truth politics.” We have become inured to a perpetual stream of manipulative talking points, fake news, disinformation, outright lies repeated over and over, and disingenuous evasions (“The racist you keep asking about? Never met him. Don’t know him.”), until the soul is demoralized and the natural reflexes to the red flags of an obvious scam are gradually degraded (Might one of those robocalls actually be genuine? Maybe the IRS really is after me?) Thanksgiving should honor the normalcy of truth, and it could not get here any sooner.
The most common usage of hoda’a in the Bible is a moral one. Hodu la-Shem, a refrain which runs through the Psalms and our prayers, is a combination of praise and thanks to God. In that context, le-hodot is to take a moral stance — to praise what is good, rather than what is true. On the other side of the moral scale, vidui (confession), an admission of moral failure, comes from the very same root.
But note the asymmetry between praise and confession — you normally confess your own sins, and laud others, rather than the reverse. The heroes of our own community and of all civilized cultures do not habitually confess other people’s private shortcomings in public, they do not hold themselves above the norms of law or tradition, do not vilify vulnerable communities, do not sing litanies to their own dubious accomplishments, and they do not pretend to know how to cure every human ill. That sort of behavior would be, of course, not normal.
This Thanksgiving, more than any other, is the time to make or renew a commitment never to normalize empty bombast, petty retaliation, hate mongering, lewdness, religious or ethnic chauvinism, and racial suspicion. Instead, as Americans and as American Jews, we must normalize integrity, dignity, basic decency, humility, good manners, fairness, empathy, and respect for our neighbors who may not look or pray like us. In short, let’s normalize the love of truth and goodness that has made American society in recent history so exceptional.
In addition to providing a fixed date to contemplate and express gratitude, Thanksgiving enjoins us to uphold the norms of civil society — to sanctify the truth, reject lies no matter how often and loudly they are shouted, identify and model that which is praiseworthy, call out the morally ugly, and to be grateful for the gifts of our fragile democracy.
The day after Thanksgiving, I’ll be looking forward to a more normal 2017.