Response to OpEd LA Times, Friday Dec 24, 2010: Dinah Lenney, Coming to Terms with Christmas
Dear conflicted Ms. Lenney:
You may have this mostly wrong, if for a lot of good reasons. Christmas is a Christian holiday, not an American holiday. Your assimilation needs for the secular trappings of the season do not diminish the core religious nature of the celebration, and the inappropriateness of a Jew engaging in it. You can be Jewish and not celebrate Hanukah. You can be Jewish and American and not celebrate Christmas.
In spite of what many say, we have to get back to a basic fact: Christians founded America in the main, but it is not a Christian nation. The creators of the USA were people motivated by the Enlightenment and the rise of rationalism over religious closed-mindedness. It was about oppressive Christian religious dogmas and the persecution of Christians by other Christians because of ethnicity and beliefs, and how the political actions and power invested in religious institutions stifled representative democracy as it tried to emerge in Europe. The Masonic ideals of many of the Revolutionaries acknowledged the strong moral basis of an American society emerging from the Christian nation states of Europe that had endured secular-spiritual conflicts, but explicitly did not want to recapitulate those conflicts.
One can try reconciling a family’s mix of traditions, and my difficulty is not with your desire to engage with the wonderful pre-Christian Nordic myths, lights, trees, Odin or St. Nicholas or Christkindl or Thomas Nast-like Santa Clauses, and their associated economic boom-times. And it is not even with your perhaps implicit desire to appreciate the beauty of the myth of the Nativity and the birth of a nice Jewish kid who made more of himself than just work as a carpenter.
In spite of my desire to separate our role as Jewish Americans from that of just being American, and to make sure government clearly knows when to not advocate one religious group’s observance as more American than others, I don’t need Christians to diminish their happiness at this time of year. Put up your decorations, crosses and front yard and window-decorating nativity scenes, and revel! The observance of Christ’s birth, and the celebration of his life and message, does not divide us, nor does it force non-Christians into an intimidating spiritual encounter, as much as many evangelical believers would like to think it should.
What does intimidate is Christianity’s capacity to monopolize, condemn and subjugate and oppress. Its religious zealotry has taken many forms over the two thousand years of its history as a political and cultural force, and many have suffered for what well-meaning Christians thought were actions dictated by the highest moral persuasion. In America, the voices of Tillich, Niebuhr and so many other great Christian writers are being overwhelmed by a hypervigilant, defensive and dogmatic extremist set of movements that echo many of the problematic aspects of religious exceptionalism, protectionism and xenophobia that are part of Christianity’s, and America’s, past brushes with fascism and righteous fear of the Other. And yes, Israel-watchers, Jews are not immune from acting out in the same egregious ways against themselves and others….
Sharing the process of coming to grips with these issues is as much a part of effective parenting in our age as is the upholding of mutual respect for differing traditions. And the fact that your own nuclear family’s traditions for Hanukah were dull is of course a problem. You could pursue more social networking with families that make more of the occasion than your experience has prepared you for. In mine, Hanukah means candlelight, lots of food, parties and, with the kids, impassioned discussion of the political dynamite and relevance of the Hasmoneans and their relations with Rome, the reasons for suppression of the Books of the Maccabees in the Jewish canon, and hanging out time. Try a little harder, maybe, to reinvent yourself in your own tradition, and perhaps you won’t lose your very special history and selfhood in the swell of admittedly sweet messianic voices of the enormous chorus all around us.
Merry Christmas and Hanukah Sameach…