The good news is that we are well past our frantic winter gift-giving, overeating holiday. The bad news is that the challenge of this year’s calendar is about to begin: What to do with the end of December? I know intellectually that Judaism is totally different than Christianity. But, would it hurt so much to sing a few carols, watch The Nutcracker and drink a little eggnog? With Christmas everywhere, what are your suggestions for helping Jewish families navigate the overwhelming all-pervasive cultural onslaught of the music, lights, and décor of this winter wonderland?
Though you are content with Hanukkah being over, I hear a distinct level of complexity in your question. This is no new challenge; it is simply cast into more imposing relief with this year’s “early” Hanukkah. That said, let us first divest ourselves of the notion that Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas. It is not. Hanukkah is a minor Jewish festival, one of two rabbinically ordained festivals, Purim being the other. Moreover, Hanukkah is the only non-modern holiday with no biblical book, reference or storyline. Instead, its narrative is told in the four-volume apocryphal work, The Book of the Maccabees.
While its compelling themes and powerful messages have animated our collective Jewish conscious in significant ways, it cannot compare to the centrality and vivacity of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach with their all-encompassing observances. You can’t expect a comparable experience from the quick lighting of candles as from the deep introspection of the High Holidays and the sitting together around a seder table; especially so, keeping in mind that much of our current Hanukkah observances are somewhat less than authentic.
Despite the fact that our holidays do loom large in our imagination — and Hanukkah is of course one of them — it still, by no stretch of the imagination, holds any comparable place in our minds to Christmas in the lives of our fellow countrymen. Even with the relatively new phenomenon of presents being given all eight nights and the hanging of decorative decals and lights all being driven by the proximity to Christmas. Yes, Virginia, we are in a vicious cycle of Christmas-wannabeism and calendrical coincidence. What to do?
First, get a grip. Situate yourself mid-way between Christmas envy and a healthy dose of Jewish self-confidence. Your question, though it focuses on outer accoutrements, seems to belie a degree of internal turmoil and conflict. It is one thing to find yourself humming a seasonal song, it is another to feel drawn to beliefs alien to normative Judaism. You are poised on a slippery slope if you begin to adopt the trimmings of December 25.
The green and red, the wreaths, the gifts, the wrappings, the ornaments, Santa Claus, and the lit-up tree notwithstanding, Christmas is in truth a solemn commemoration of the birth of Jesus. Many people get too distracted by the festive trappings to notice this: It is a holiday about his birth and the central Christian notion that Jesus was brought to earth to bear the sins of others and to die from that suffering. It hardly gets more heavy duty than that.
But here’s a religious reality check: This and other core ideas of Christianity originate in Judaism and in our prophetic texts! Surprisingly, we Jews often adamantly distance ourselves from these texts, though they are genuinely Jewish. Perhaps it is this perilous proximity that demands a drastic distancing, as our meshed moments in history can be a bit too close for comfort.
We Jews believe that the notion that Jesus’ suffering and bearing the pain and then dying for the sins of others is a misinterpretation of Isaiah Chapter 53 and of the events of the first century of the Common Era. Come the High Holidays, we take personal responsibility for our misdeeds with no thought of another person bearing the onus for our sins.
This idea of an individual suffering and dying for the sins of the many is a notion deeply embedded our own Jewish scripture in the Book of Isaiah. Here is the Jewish Publication Society translation from that chapter:
He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed. All we like sheep did go astray, we turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? For he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.
I know, hard to believe. Feel free to reread. We own this one. James Kugel, in his book, How to Read the Bible, suggests that this text is core to the development of early Christianity. Followers of Jesus, once he was crucified and faced with the reality that he was clearly not the model of the messiah/king, described as being the influential and powerful political leader who brought ultimate peace to the world, had to then reconfigure their world view. They adopted the prophecy of Isaiah as a kind of Plan B. Hence, the Old Testament becomes necessary in their newly formulated theology.
The emergence of this new religion was not arbitrary; indeed, it is rooted in profound theological differences. Thus, in celebrating Christmas we are doing far more than merely admiring red and green stockings. Rather, we are turning our backs on the lines our own rabbinic ancestors wisely drew hundreds of years ago. In a sense, we are denying precisely that which it means to be Jewish, that very same spirit that fueled the fervor of our Maccabbean ancestors.
This Isaiah text is of course interpreted in a very different way by Jewish exegetes. It is a text that, while taken seriously, does not assume a central part of our thought, mindset or liturgy.
With chapters of Isaiah on either side selected as part of the Haftarah cycle, one cannot help but conclude it is actually purposefully deemphasized. Though certain phrases evoke sharp memories from the period after the Holocaust, the text as a whole rarely assumes center stage. This is in contrast to the publicly read Book of Lamentations, which is fraught with a heavy dose of self-abnegation as well. Jewish tradition instead identifies the suffering servant of the Isaiah texts as either a metaphor for the entire Jewish people who suffer for the sins of all nations or with Isaiah himself, King Josiah or Jeremiah the prophet.
This was a dramatic rupture of beliefs, creating a deep fissure that cannot be traversed. Those outer trappings of jovial festivity should not be mistaken as lighthearted cultural playthings. They are aspects of a narrative that is not ours; the gifts hearken back to the wise men’s gifts for the baby Jesus, the tree, to the cross, the star atop the tree to the star over Bethlehem.
We are uncomfortable when others make light of our practices and casually adopt them. We should respectfully distance ourselves from practices that are not our own as well.
How does an American Jewish family navigate this all-pervasive culture? This year, when Christmas falls on Shabbat, consider going to a synagogue and hearing the Torah portion. It will tell the story of Joseph and how he endured so much, yet grew into becoming the great provider, forgiving his brothers and setting the stage for our grand narrative of enslavement and the Exodus. You know that familiar trope: They tried to kill us, God saved us, let’s eat — words to live by.
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.