A Muslim resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras-al-Amud was widely and enthusiastically celebrated by Jewish media outlets this fall.
Ihab, a bus driver, decorated the Egged bus that he drives to look like a succah, in celebration of the joyous Jewish harvest festival. He adorned the bus ceiling with bamboo mats (skhakh) and hanging plastic fruit and colorful garlands. Before that, on Passover, he decorated his bus to look like a seder table. “My goal is to improve relations with my commuters, in light of the fact that they’re oftentimes strained, doubly so in Jerusalem,” Ihab said. Ihab’s passengers, he reported, were delighted, wishing him “yasher koach” (“more power to you!”) and “chag same’ach” (“happy holiday!”). Ihab has indicated his intention once again to find creative ways to decorate his bus to mark Jewish holidays.
A number of friends and colleagues approvingly called my attention to this story, welcoming the friendly and open-minded spirit of this charming East Jerusalemite, and identifying Ihab’s actions as a hopeful sign for a future of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation. My response to each correspondent who forwarded me articles on Ihab’s Succah-bus was the same: “Would that American Jews could demonstrate the same sincere enthusiasm and big-hearted graciousness in response to the religious holiday observances of the majority culture in which we live!”
All too often, Jews react to the Christmas season and its ubiquitous and particularist greetings with unnecessary discomfort, at times approaching a hostile siege mentality.
The subject how to relate to non-Jews and their holidays, and what appropriate greetings may be, occupied the rabbis of the Talmud. The Mishnah (Gittin 5:9) says that Jews may “lend support to heathens” who are working the land of Israel during the sabbatical year, when such agricultural activity is forbidden for Jews. A number of sages explain that the support in question is the practice of offering non-Jewish neighbors suitable greetings.
“Achzuku!” (“Strength to you!”) is one such greeting identified by the accompanying talmudic text (Gittin 62A). This was Rabbi Yehudah’s preferred greeting; Rabbi Sheshet would say “Asharta!” (“Yasher koach!” — “More power to you!”). Rabbi Chisda, the Talmud reports, always would be sure to offer greetings to non-Jews, even before they greeted him. Rabbi Kahana would say “Shalom l’Mar!” (“Peace to you, sir!”).
The talmudic discussion concludes with a logical puzzlement: “If the Mishnah says we may ‘lend support’ to non-Jews engaged in behavior which Jewish law forbids to Jews, is it even necessary to say that we may offer them verbal greetings, as the Mishnah also stipulates? (Shouldn’t that simply be inferred as obvious, using a fortiori reasoning)?” Rabbi Yeba provides a telling and instructive conclusion: “It is necessary to say so — to say that we may offer appropriate greetings — specifically in reference to their holiday.”
In the twelfth century, Maimonides (Hilchot Avodah Zarah 10:5) codified Rabbi Yeba’s insight as law: “We offer non-Jews appropriate greetings, even on their holiday, in the interests of communal amity (mipnei darkhei shalom).” Or as a thoughtful Muslim bus driver put it in Jerusalem: “My goal is to improve relations with my commuters.” Whether Ihab ever actually studied Maimonides is not clear. That he instinctively understood the spirit of the great sage is beyond dispute.
In his profoundly authoritative glosses to the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 148:12), Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the “Rema”) of sixteenth century Cracow (and a defining pioneer of Ashkenazi jurisprudence) also considers how Jews might respond appropriately to the religious holidays of the majority culture.
Isserles, of course, could have been referring only to his Christian neighbors when he said: “There is the risk of generating ill will if we separate ourselves from them on their holiday, insofar as we live among them and do business with them all year long. Therefore, if we come into a community and we find them rejoicing on their holiday, we should rejoice with them! This will prevent ill will. We (and our friendliness in pursuing commerce the rest of the year) would otherwise appear hypocritical (and, we might add, mercenary and self-serving).”
The argument has been asserted in some Jewish quarters that Christmas is essentially a secular holiday, primarily celebrated as such, and that the customary greeting therefore is halachically unobjectionable. This reasoning should be soundly rejected as demeaning to Christianity, its holy day, and its sancta. During the Christmas season, we ought to greet the Christians among whom we live in unprecedented peace and amity (and graciously, indeed, gratefully accept their greetings) not because we applaud the secularization of their faith (our own tradition’s daughter faith, it might be added) but because we value their friendship.
During the Christmas season, we ought to greet our Christian neighbors and gratefully accept their greetings on principle, because we sincerely value the religious expression of the majority culture over the deceptive and destructive allure of secularism and nihilism, with which the religious enterprise (including our own) competes for attention and influence. During the Christmas season, we ought to greet our Christian neighbors and gratefully accept their greetings “even on their holiday” because such a pattern of courteous social interaction was prescribed by the giants of rabbinic leadership from the very founding of our tradition.
“We should rejoice with them,” the Rema ruled some 450 years ago, all but explicitly instructing us to be “merry” on Christmas! At the very least, the Rema made clear that greetings conducive to the merriness of those celebrating Christmas are in no way contraindicated, prohibited, or discouraged by normative and authentic Jewish practice.
In the next few days, I will be reprising my annual custom of sending Christmas cards with personal notes and greetings to a long list of Christian clergy and lay leaders with whom I have been privileged to work cooperatively (many of these through my role as the Boy Scouts of America’s national Jewish chaplain). Among them are Roman Catholics, Mormons, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and a variety of Protestants: Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Baptists, Salvation Army, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.
Each year I select my Christmas cards with great care (and, I must confess, a significant measure of joy!). Neither the design nor the printed greeting is to be theologically wrought (no nativity scenes, no saints, no churches). Yet neither the design nor the printed greeting is to convey a secular approach to the Holy Day so treasured by my correspondents (no Santa Claus, no sleigh and reindeer, no Frosty the Snowman). Furthermore, neither the design nor the printed greeting is to suggest a syncretistic conflation of Christmas and Chanukah. All these requirements make my card shopping a daunting challenge.
Thus my joy upon successful identification of a vehicle for my Christmas greetings!
This year, I selected a simple card, depicting on its cover two cardinals (of the avian not the ecclesial variety). The greeting printed on the interior reads, in gold lettering, “Peace and Joy.” To the printed message I will add my own handwritten “Merry Christmas,” as well as a full report on my work, my family, my children and grandson, along with inquiries about the similar concerns of the friends and colleagues being addressed.
The goodwill generated by this annual correspondence, which I have faithfully carried out for 20 years and more, has been immeasurable. The year I dispatched Christmas cards from Jerusalem while on a family vacation made a particularly profound impact. (Card shopping was unusually difficult that Christmas!)
“Peace and Joy,” it should be understood, is not simply a “pareve” or theologically neutral holiday greeting. It is (at least from my rabbinic perspective) an artful literary allusion to our own sacred texts. “Sho’alin b’shloman, mipnei darkhei shalom,” Mishnah Gittin reads: “We offer them suitable greetings (literally, ‘We ask after their peace’), in the interests of peace.” Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Isserles: “Yismach imahem” — “One should rejoice with them.” Thus, “Peace” and “Joy.” Imagine: a (non-syncretistic) Christmas card quoting both the Mishnah and the Rema. What a wonderful country! In some ways — given the lack of such amity throughout much of the Jewish people’s historic experience — it truly is “the most wonderful time of the year!”
It should be surprising to report that my Christmas cards and the friendship they represent have generated reciprocated expressions of greeting in anticipation of the High Holy Days. This year, a dear friend serving as a United Methodist pastor in Corpus Christi, Texas (with whom I stayed in close communication throughout Hurricane Harvey), sent me a colorful Rosh Hashanah card with a warm personal message. The card is now framed and displayed in my home, showing the printed sentiment on the front cover: “More Joy. Less Oy!”
“Achzuku,” pastor! Yasher koach! Merry Christmas!
“More Joy. Less Oy!” The Rema couldn’t have said it better himself. May that sentiment guide us in the Jewish community throughout the days and weeks ahead.