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Rabbi Grinch and the Christmas tree

A rabbi's ruling to keep Jewish Technion students away from a "Pagan idol" is incorrect and smacks of bigotry

A few days ago, a prominent news website serving the religious Zionist sector publicized a halachic ruling issued by Rabbi Elad Dukov, the campus rabbi at Haifa’s Technion University. According to the ruling, Jewish students are forbidden by religious law from entering the student center, where many students eat lunch and congregate between classes, due to the presence of a Christmas tree that has been placed there. According to accompanying news coverage on the same website, many students ate outside due to the ruling. Rabbi Dukov’s ruling stated that “there is a Halachic problem eating in a room where there is a Christmas tree.” Dukov added that, “To my great dismay, I see no room for leniency in this matter.”

In the posting on the site Dukov is quoted as referring to the tree as “Pagan” and ruling that it is forbidden to be in the presence of idolatry. The website quoted a number of other like-minded rabbis who agreed with Dukov although their quoted statements made no direct reference to the specifics of his ruling.

Setting aside for a moment the disturbing bigotry implied by Dukov’s ruling, an analysis of his decision in light of Jewish legal texts shows it to be questionable at best; baseless at worst.

For the sake of argument, I will not frame this within the centuries old dispute among Halachic authorities as to the status of Christianity according to Jewish law. Presumably, Rabbi Dukov and his approvers follow the most extreme opinion which declares Christianity to be pure idolatry. The fact that this opinion originated before the Reformation and the many subsequent theological developments within Christianity since, and therefore does not necessarily apply to many denominations of today’s Christians – and may not even apply to today’s Catholics, as stated by numerous contemporary Halachic authorities – is worthy of note, but clearly not to Rabbi Dukov. Again, purely for the sake of argument — and it is far from the opinion of this writer — let us accept the Christianity as idolatry approach.

Even if Christianity is pure idolatry form the standpoint of Jewish law, why would it be forbidden to sit and eat in the presence of a Christmas tree? Jewish law prohibits benefitting from idolatry in very specific ways. The Shulchan Aruch – the Code of Jewish Law – devotes numerous chapters to this issue. (Specifically, chapters 139 and 142 of Yoreh Deah are relevant here.)

Icons and idols that are worshipped or used in for worship are clearly forbidden. In addition, an object used to directly adorn an idol is forbidden as well. For example, a necklace that was placed around an idol’s neck for the purpose of beautifying the idol would be off limits according to Halacha.

A Christmas tree is neither worshipped nor does it serve any function in the context of worship. It is not an icon representing the deity and it does not adorn any idol. What possible basis in Jewish law did Rabbi Dukov find for prohibiting Jewish students from being in the same room as a Christmas tree?

As I mentioned above, Rabbi Dukov made reference to the Pagan origins of the Christmas tree custom. He stated that these origins render the tree “even more problematic.” From a Halachic standpoint this makes no sense. In fact, whether or not a particular practice originated in Pagan sources has no bearing whatsoever on its status as idolatry. Even an actual idol from ancient times is rendered permissible for enjoyment provided that there is no longer anyone who considers it sacred. To imply something similar regarding a Christmas tree because trees were worshipped long ago in the Ancient Near East is absurd.

To illustrate the untenable nature of Dukov’s position, let’s imagine that there were still those who worship such trees. The Shulchan Aruch (YD 142:9) states as follows:

The Asherah tree, whether it had actually been worshipped or had an idol placed beneath it, it is forbidden to sit in its shade.

The commentaries on this passage point out that the prohibition specifically describes a tree that was either worshipped or provided shade to an idol. The implication is that if neither of these qualifications are met, the tree would be permissible for enjoyment and use even ab initio. In other words, even a tree that was intended for actual forbidden idolatrous use is permissible until it is used in one of the specific ways that would render it unfit. Does Rabbi Dukov really want us to believe that a Christmas tree fits this category?

I will not belabor the point with more sources that point to the untenable nature of Rabbi Dukov’s ruling; a ruling he saw as so clear cut that he saw “no room for leniency in this matter.” Really?

From the accompanying news coverage of the story it is clear that Rabbi Dukov’s reaction is part of a larger issue on the Technion campus involving what the religious students describe as antireligious discrimination with regard to the funding of student activities. If in fact discrepancies that point to discrimination exist they must be called out and protested. But why dress up the issue in Halachic garb? Why offend Christians and issue questionable and extreme rulings?

Truth be told, Rabbi Dukov’s reaction, as well as those of the other religious Zionist rabbis who supported him, speaks to a larger problem plaguing this sector of the population. Religious Zionists are, of course, by and large very nationalistic. This nationalism goes beyond their ideological perspective on the State of Israel per se. This community exemplifies Jewish pride in general; and there is certainly much to be proud of. At the same time, sadly, there is a darker side to this pride and nationalist zeal. Unfortunately, many in the Religious Zionist community translate Jewish and Zionist pride into a kind of bigotry that views every expression of identity that is not their own as an attack. Their passion and zeal to build a Jewish state based on Torah as soon as possible blinds them to the realities around them.

A Christmas tree in the Technion student center threatens the Jewish character of the State of Israel? Really? A step such as this that lets local Christians – citizens of Israel – know that they are acknowledged and accepted is so frightening? The State of Israel has always included and will always include minorities of other nations and faiths. Even the idealized picture of the nation of Israel described in the Torah does not exclude members of other nations who are not Jewish as part of the society.

As I write this, Christians are persecuted and attacked in virtually every country in the Middle East except for Israel. A growing percentage of the wider Christian world sees this fact and is grateful to the State of Israel for it; and justly so. (It might interest readers to know that our organization was first alerted to the issue at the Technion via a Christian who is a long-time friend of Israel who found Rabbi Dukov’s ruling disturbing.)

Among those non-Jews who live among us in Israel, there is no population more ready and willing to live peacefully with us in this land as friends and neighbors than Christians. If we want to strengthen our presence in this land and fortify our chances for peace internally and with the wider world around us, there is no better place to start than by treating the Christians of Israel with inclusion and respect.

About the Author
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Associate Director and Lecturer at the Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat. Previously, he served as Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah. He resides with his wife and eight children in Bet Shemesh.
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