Posted tagged ‘Gospels’

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

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When It Comes to the Passion Story, Not All Passion is Good

April 2, 2010

As I stated in my last posting on this blog, there has arisen in my community quite a furor over whether or not it is constitutional acceptable for a city government to call a paid holiday for its employees by a religious name or a secular one.  The holiday in question is Good Friday, and the contested alternative name is the religiously neutral one of Spring Holiday.

Today, in our local newspaper, the Quad City Times, an editorial was published which was supportive of keeping our city government religiously neutral.  That is the good news.  Unfortunately, the author of the editorial chose to introduce his text by drawing the following comparison with the traditional gospel version of the Passion Story – the account of the execution of Jesus.

“Somber Christian church services today mark Good Friday, commemorating a day in 33 A.D. when government leaders in Jerusalem caved in to public pressure and executed a religious leader. In Christian churches across the Quad-Cities today, lectors will read the portion of the passion play when Pilate, a governor, then Herod, king, tried to convince the mob otherwise. But the people wouldn’t listen. “Crucify him!” the people said, according to the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

So the government leaders complied with the will of the people.”

This account was so disturbing to me that I posted the following comment on their web site and now wish to share it with my blog readers:

I do applaud the stand taken in this editorial calling for us to reconsider how governmental bodies should treat religious holidays.  Thank you!

However, I do wish to correct some historically inaccurate statements made in its introductory section.  The story of the execution of Jesus as presented here is the story as it is presented in Christian scripture, particularly the Gospel of John.  Of all the four gospels, John was written later and is clearly the most antisemitic.
The story as presented was intended to generate hatred for the Jews who, at the time, were competing heavily with the Christians for the conversion of the pagans, particularly the Romans.  They were bitter blood rivals.  Especially considering the desire of Christianity at the time to appeal to the Roman population and someday perhaps even become the official faith of the Roman empire, there was a great need to re-frame the story so as to take responsibility for Jesus’ death off of the Romans.  Transferring the responsibility to the Jews serve a double purpose for the Christians since it not only took the responsibility of “deicide” off of the Romans but it also served as a serious blow to the Christians’ Jewish competitors.  Indeed, when John has the Jewish crowd shouting to Pilate “Let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children,” that statement was intended to justify Christian prejudice and persecution of all Jews throughout the ages, and not just those who were contemporary with Jesus.  It takes but a short review of the history of that period to see that the Jews of the time were open to embracing any person who offered them any form of hope.  They had no reason whatsoever to denounce him and call for his execution.

As Paul Harvey, of blessed memory, used to say, “And now for the rest of the story!”  Most credible scholars today recognize that the traditional Christian account of the execution of Jesus is terribly historically flawed.  First of all, the Roman empire was a hard and ruthless ruler of its occupied provinces.  Their governors – called Procurators – ruled with iron fists, imposing Roman rule and collecting heavy taxes.  Roman rulers never were the type that would bow to the pressure of their non-Roman subject people.  This was especially true in the province of Judea.  The Judeans had been involved in anti-Roman revolutionary activities since the rebellion of Judah of Galilee in 6 B.C.E.  In fact, Galilee, where Jesus lived, was a continual hotbed of revolution.  Josephus, in his history to the period identifies these revolutionaries as on of the four sects prevalent among the Jewish people and calls them the Fourth Philosophy.  They are also known as Zealots.  Fundamental to their belief was that the Jewish people owed no allegiance to an earthly ruler but only to the Heavenly Ruler.  These Zealots conducted continual guerrilla warfare against Roman caravans in the Galilee.  The Romans called the brigands and robbers.  In the urban centers, especially Jerusalem, there was another group of revolutionaries called the Sicarii, which means “Dagger Men” in Greek (the common language of the Roman empire).  These revolutionaries were terrorists.  They would go into crowds, especially markets, with daggers under their cloaks.  They would then approach Romans or Jewish collaborators with the Romans and stab them to death and then disappear back into the crowd.  In was because of this environment that the Roman empire decided that Judea needs to be ruled with a special rigor.  Therefore they sent their worst, most corrupt soldiers there, both as punishment to these soldiers and to the Judeans.  As for their Procurators, they sent their hardest, greediest men.  A Procurator of a province received a percentage of the taxes.  The more the people were taxed, the richer the Procurator became.  In Judea, it was standard that a Procurator would rule for three to six years and amass such a fortune that they could retire to Rome and live the rest of their lives in luxury.  Enter Pontius Pilate.  Unlike the gospel descriptions of him, Pilate was anything but a gentle soul whose heart would go out to someone like Jesus.  In fact, Pilate was the ONLY Procurator in the history of Roman rule in Judea who was recalled to Rome for use of excessive violence.  He probably still holds the world’s record for number of crucifixions.  He was so harsh that the Roman senate determined that he was doing more to provoke revolution rather than suppress it.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem to observe the Passover pilgrimage festival, as far as Pilate was concerned, he had all the markings of a revolutionary or a potential revolutionary.  He came from the rebellious province of Galilee.  He was developing a significant following.  He numbered among his closest advisers (apostles) one man who was a known Zealot – Simon the Zealot – and another who might have been a member of the Sicarii – Judas Iscariot.  The name “Iscariot” is neither Hebrew nor Greek.  Monsignor S.G.F. Brandon, in his work JESUS AND THE ZEALOTS, proposes that the name is actually a combination of both languages and originally was “Ish” (which in Hebrew means “man”) “Sicarii”.  In other words, a member of the Sicarii.  Therefore, seeing Jesus as a threat, it was Pilate who had him arrested and executed.  It also should be noted that when Jesus was crucified, the two other men crucified along with him were, according to the gospels, thieves.  Crucifixion was even for a Roman like Pilate too extreme a penalty for theft.  However, if you recall, this was the term the Romans used for Zealots, revolutionaries.  It would therefore appear that Pilate viewed Jesus in the same light as he did these two rebels.
I share all this with you because it is important to understand that the Passion story, as portrayed in the beginning of this editorial is not only historically inaccurate but has stood at the very foundation of Christian based antisemitism for almost 2,000 years.  The belief that Jews were the ones directly and primarily responsible for Jesus’ death – the sin of “deicide” – the murder of God – has fueled a hatred that has resulted in the barbarous murder of literally millions of Jews throughout the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, and is still virulently alive today in the doctrines of so many of the hate groups.  When we tell this story as so presented in the editorial, whether intending to or not, we are fueling the fires of what many consider humanity’s longest hatred.