To date, I have experienced over 65 Christmas seasons in my lifetime. Having spent all of them as an “outsider”, I do admit to a life-long appreciation of the Yule season’s message and traditions. To be sure, I am not only a non-Christian; I am a believing Jew and a rabbi. Thus, I do not affirm what Christianity teaches about the most famous man from Nazareth. But I am happy and proud that this season, if observed appropriately (religiously?), remembers not just the birth of one of my distant kinsmen, but more importantly the message of peace, mutual understanding and good will that he—dedicated Jewish teacher that he was—imparted to so many. It is for this reason that, as we begin yet another Yuletide season, I must express (albeit with an outsider’s chutzpah) both puzzlement and annoyance that this wonderful and important message continues to somehow be drowned out every year by other factors antithetical to its spirit. These factors include, but are not limited to:
–a rampant and infectious commercialization of the season, with its continued overemphasis on gift-giving and consumerism, even as so many continue to feel a scarcity of resources.
–the annual battle between those who believe that American culture will implode from not enough manger scenes on public properties, and those who believe that this implosion will happen if only one manger scene is present on said properties, the casualties numbered by how many people feel offended.
Like most Jews, I have not been directly touched by what many Christians feel to be serious challenges to the holiday and its true meaning. However, as these challenges take an ever-increasing role in the season’s ambiance, it is difficult for a person of faith not to empathize with the pain of those Christians who feel that the sanctity of an important holiday continues to be profaned. Thus, as another Yuletide season approaches, this rabbi humbly presents his wishes for this Christmas:
1. To those for whom Christmas is an important religious holiday: please help your fellow observers focus less on the trappings, and more on the message of the season. Please help them concentrate less on the gifts and more on the spirit of giving. Indeed, how must “the Guest of Honor” feel about people doing bodily harm to each other every year, just to secure gifts, supposedly to be given in observance of his birthday? In a time when so many individuals need to be receiving more than they will be giving, I would suggest that a different perspective might be in order: perhaps you who celebrate the Nazarene’s birth might do well to help folks stay properly focused by talking about his life and continuing to exemplify the values of the one whom you believe was the very incarnation of those values. In other words, help “keep Christ in Christmas”. Especially in the wake of an election that has taken its toll on the emotional and spiritual health of so many of us, help all of us to remember his commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation—and not just through January 1, but throughout the entire year. By all means, “keep Christ in Christmas” by bearing witness to the importance of the day, perhaps less by preaching what to believe about Jesus, and more about how to live the kind of life a true follower of his should live.
2. To my fellow non-Christians for whom the holiday is not a sacred time: could we work at feeling less offended by, and more charitably disposed to, the religious beliefs and practices of our Christian neighbors at this season? Could we do this, even when such beliefs might be expressed and affirmed in public venues? My late revered teacher, Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski, z”l taught that at the Yuletide season we Jews would do well to remember the Talmudic tenet of lifnim m’shurat ha-din, “going beyond the letter of the law”. This principle teaches that even when the law itself favors one party over another, the ethically correct thing may be for the offended party to not insist on his/her legal “due”—particularly when doing so will cause more friction among groups and individuals. “Going beyond the letter of the law” would suggest overriding any felt need and/or legal right to bring legal suit. Would it be too much for us to heed this piece of wisdom?
Yes, according to most legal interpretations, religious Christmas displays should not be displayed on government property and other public venues. However, when they are displayed, we “non-observers” have a choice as to how we respond: we can choose to feel offended, threatened and thus more litigious. Or, we can choose to feel less threatened and more tolerant and deferential to those for whom the season is sacred. Hopefully, those of us who are followers of non-Christian faiths are strong enough in our own beliefs and traditions, that we don’t feel required to take offense if or when a Baby Jesus happens to sleep on a City Hall lawn for a month or so. Indeed, following the spirit of lifnim m’shurat ha-din seems infinitely more noble and resonant with those beliefs then needing to waving a copy of the First Amendment in a court room.
To be sure, I am not so naïve as to think my wishes will be universally granted, or even acknowledged. Some may applaud and some may shake their heads in disgust. My requests are controversial for a lot of reasons, and thus are presented with the utmost humility. But my hope and prayer is that by this time next year, we Americans who are constantly called to “appreciate diversity” will have learned how to better respond to such aspects of “the “December dilemma”, with wiser, more charitable perspectives for all concerned.
If my wishes are granted, perhaps the message of “good will to all”, which is so desperately needing to be heard, will be a bit closer to being so.