I happened to overhear recently when a friend of mine asked the poised young wife of a Chabad rabbi if her family celebrates Thanksgiving. In general, ultra-Orthodox Jews shy away from marking non-Jewish holidays.
“No,” she answered with sort of a secret smile, “but we do appreciate it.”
This is exactly how I think of Christmas and I’ve been feeling less guilty about that lately.
In general, the classic Jewish ways of dealing with this most beloved of Christian holidays have included eating Chinese food, going to the movies, or if you’re a real mensch, working at the office as a way of saying thank you to Christian colleagues who fill in for you when you take off for Jewish holidays or leave early for Shabbat. For myself, when I lived in New York, my wife and I used to mark the occasion by going out for drinks at Aquavit, a fancy and festive Scandinavian restaurant.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, without whom there would be no Christian religion. So for Jews the day also poses the question of how we’re to regard the rival and younger faith. I wrote a whole a book about the reasons faithful Jews have given for rejecting Jesus, but this doesn’t tell us whether, from a Jewish traditional and authentic perspective, we should feel that his birth was on the whole a good thing or bad thing.
Christianity poses a theological challenge to us. Both the Hebrew Bible and our own oral and rabbinic tradition going back millennia have seen the Jewish people as called upon by God to transform the world spiritually. Yet spiritually, in any practical day-to-day sense, our impact on others has been and remains minimal. This has become especially painful in recent generations when Jews achieved in America all the freedom, acceptance and influence that we could ever hope for in a gentile country. In the spiritual realm, we’ve done very little with our privileged position.
Jews stand out for our level of achievement in virtually every sphere of endeavor — whether playing the violin or making motion pictures, doing physics or doing business — that is, every area except the one that the God of Israel cares most about, that of moral and religious leadership. Jews who speak out in public on moral issues almost invariably do so on questions where they stand in defiance of the Torah. Either that, or they lecture others on moral issues that are of great relevance to Jews (anti-Semitism, support for Israel) but much less so to anyone else. Religiously faithful Jews, per se, remain almost entirely irrelevant on the American scene.
This is in sharp contrast to traditional and conservative Christians. Defending the sanctity of human life or the traditional family, standing up for God’s honor as the creator of the world, or reaching out to and teaching the spiritually lost and searching of all ethnicities — these are all seen as Christian vocations, not Jewish ones.
This has sometimes depressed me. It’s as if Christians have taken the appointed Jewish role in the world and made it their own, as Jews sat passively by or, worse, offered only sniping, critical comments from the sidelines. But then it occurred to me, what if God meant things to turn out this way?
I mean to offer no concession to Christian theology, the most telling Jewish objections to which remain as cogent as ever. Christianity has functioned through its history as the most effective acid on the existence of the Jewish people. Jesus-believing Jews invariably disappeared with their descendants into the wider gentile population. That the Jewish Messiah would turn out to be the person ultimately responsible for that I find unthinkable to accept. At a more fundamental level, Christian belief sits uncomfortably on the foundation of the Hebrew Bible. The latter insists over and over again that the grammar of law through which God asks us to form our relationship to him is an eternal aspect of his blueprint for humanity. The New Testament overturns Torah law and so, if embraced, divorces the Jew from God.
In other words, if you read the Hebrew and Greek Bibles consecutively, in the historical order in which they came into the world, the latter cannot readily be reconciled with former. But what if you read them in the opposite sequence? That is exactly how Christians do it and, looked from this very different perspective, it’s not as if the Christian reading makes no sense.
On the contrary, the Hebrew Bible is an extraordinarily enigmatic book. Jewish tradition places its own interpretation on Scripture, an interpretation I find enchantingly beautiful and powerfully, electromagnetically true. Yet the Jewish interpretation is not without its implausibilities. Nobody who picked up our Scriptures with an open mind but zero background in Judaism or Christianity would ever read out of it the structure of traditional Jewish belief with which we are familiar. From the pages of our Bible, the teachings of the Talmud do not tumble forth effortlessly.
To discover our own Judaism in the Bible requires turning the Scriptural text in a certain way, as you would turn a crystal under the sun. At this angle it reflects light in a particular, Jewish manner. But turn it again and you see not the Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Bible but the Christian one. Retrospectively looking back on the Biblical text, the New Testament seeks to explain all that is so confounding and mysterious in a radically different manner, one that is, if we are honest, plausible in its own way. Less plausible to me, but then I am a Jew.
One possibility, preferred by secularists, is that God wasn’t intimately involved in revealing the Torah, Prophets and Writings that make up the Hebrew Bible. The other possibility is that he was very much involved. But if so, why did he allow such a degree of ambiguity in Scripture?
In the classic medieval philosophic work Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah Ha’levi selected an apt image to describe the impact of Judaism on the world. Torah is like a seed planted in the ground that draws the nutrients in the soil to it. The seed disappears in the earth, but then there springs forth a tree whose fruits are those very same nutrients transformed into a new creation. The tree is the Jews and the fruit are the non-Jewish nations, which are made into one living being with the people of Israel.
The Hebrew prophets speak insistently and gloriously of the metamorphosis of humanity into a single community in the worship of God. Very mainstream and Orthodox rabbinic thinkers like Samson Raphael Hirsch and Jacob Emden saw the eruption of Christianity into the world as a “necessary” (Hirsch’s word) condition of this alchemy. Hirsch stressed the gradualness of the education of man up to the level of Israel.
True, rabbinic sources associate the church of Rome with Isaac’s son Esau as they link Islam with Abraham’s son Ishmael — both problematic figures, to say the least. Yet the Bible, explained by Jewish tradition, also foresees Esau and Ishmael ultimately reconciling with Israel. These are transmuting, transforming personalities, not irreversibly negative ones. How different from the supernaturally evil Amalek, the mysterious entity that the rabbis associated with a belief in randomness as the driving force of reality and a characteristic chilliness in opposition to everything the Jews are meant to stand for. It is only with Amalek that there can never be any reconciliation.
It almost seems as if there might be a sense in which non-Jews gradually do transmute themselves, becoming one with us. Many Christians have this intuition as well. When I spoke recently at an Evangelical church in Santa Monica, the pastor offered me a shofar to blow before my speech. (Though charmed, I declined.) He explained that the congregation has a custom of shofar-blowing before every service. When at one point I asked if there were any Jews in the audience, I was startled to find that most of the hands in the audience went up.
I then asked how many considered themselves Christians. The same hands shot into the air. They were not Messianic Jews, Jews for Jesus, or anything like that. They considered themselves, as Christians, to have been “grafted in” to the Jewish people. The phrase was originally Paul’s.
Very different from the old and frequently venomous replacement theology, the phenomenon of a profound philo-Semitism in Evangelical culture is striking and increasingly widespread. And maybe that is God’s plan. Jesus spoke to his followers of their being “the light of the world,” and advised, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16). As an Orthodox Jew, I’m not unaware that this is exactly what God asked the Jews to be.
The seed is not the fruit and the fruit is not the seed yet in nature they are part of the same continuing process of growth and development, too slow to see happening except in their results. One is necessary to the production of the other. For this reason, as the Chabad rebbitzin said of Thanksgiving, while not observing Christmas, I do appreciate it. If nothing else, it is an apt time for Jews to contemplate the mystery of what, in bringing the Christian faith into the world, exactly God had in mind.