My predecessor in Bournemouth, Rabbi David Soetendrop, once told me a story. A relative of a congregant had died and Rabbi David went round one night around this time to lead the shivah prayers. As he walked up to the house, he noticed in the windowsill of the lounge, in full view of anyone who walked past or up to the house, was a small Christmas tree. He knocked on the door and there was a very loud whisper from the house. “It’s the Rabbi,” someone said from inside, “close the curtains before he sees the Christmas tree!” They obviously hadn’t realised that he could see through the glass as he walked up to the house!
Jews have almost always lived in two cultures – the culture of our heritage and the culture of the country in which we happen to be living. There have in the last few thousand years been very few times and places when the culture of our heritage and of our home have been the same, so Jewish life has, almost always, been a balancing act between differing cultures. Sometimes the two cultures complement each other, sometimes they clash. An example of how they can complement each other can be found in the habits of so many American Jews, apparently especially New York Jews, on December 25th. Since those Jews aren’t at work and since restaurants and movie theatres are usually empty at that time (for non-COVID reasons), such Jews invariably go out for a meal, usually Chinese. So, it becomes almost an American Jewish custom to go out for Chinese food and a movie on December 25th. This year, it seems to be take-out and Netflix or Disney +. This isn’t a religious custom at all, even though it's based on the same day as an important Christian holiday. Jews who take part in such a custom aren’t participating in anything Christian, they’re just helping local businesses stay afloat where possible at a time when local Christians wouldn’t be for a day.
A second way that Jews have lived in other cultures is by bringing secular customs into the religious life of the Jewish community. The most famous and obvious example of this is the seder service, which is filled with Hellenic eating customs, such as leaning to the left, starting a meal with herbs and with salt water, and ending the meal with dessert, known in Greek as afikomen. Although we note the Hellenic origins of these customs, they are unquestionably Jewish because they were removed from their original secular context and “made Jewish.” Yes, the Romans may have added salt water at the start of their meal, but we do it to remember the Exodus from Egypt.
The third way that Jews have lived in other cultures is by taking the religious customs of other communities and then rendering them Jewish. This hasn’t happened for a long time but is a part of ancient Jewish ritual. Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur receive only brief mentions in Torah, it is interesting how important they became in Rabbinic Judaism later. Particularly important are a series of ten days in which human destiny is set, connection with the creation of the world, the enthronement of God during this time, a sacrifice for atonement to carry away people’s sins. This is important because these were all Babylonian customs and it seems very possible - perhaps one could go so far as to say likely - that the Jewish community picked up these customs during the Babylonian Exile and thus transformed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
We have so far seen three differing ways that Jews have lived in non-Jewish culture. The first is by simply observing secular customs around the same time as the non-Jewish community celebrated religious customs. The second is by assimilating secular customs into the religious life of the Jewish community, and the third is by assimilating non-Jewish religious customs into the religious life of the Jewish community. All of these were acceptable at the time because they were brought into Jewish life as opposed to existing alongside it. This third way is the most controversial so far, though, because of what might be called religious misappropriation. Bringing in religious rituals from another faith community into your own is a way of denying the meaning behind them and imposing on that ritual differing meaning. So, for example, when some churches hold a seder around Pesach to learn about the Last Supper, they engage in theological violence to the seder (as well as historical violence since it wasn’t even created yet by that time!). We wouldn’t want other communities to take out rituals and bring them into their own religion, so we really shouldn’t be doing the same. We excuse the theological borrowing from the Babylonians since they are no longer around to complain about it, although that’s probably not a very good defence and we’re best to move on from that quickly.
The Enlightenment brought a fourth way of coexisting which has profoundly challenged the Jewish community over the last two hundred years. Once religious authority was replaced by secular authority, and once Jews began mixing socially with non-Jews, a new coexistence formed. Suddenly, Jews were invited to Christmas parties. Jews started marrying Christians and the assumption of a fully Jewish household was no longer valid – indeed, something like one-third of the children in our Religious School come from mixed-faith parents. In such homes, a form of celebration of both Jewish and Christian festivals is common and I would even say appropriate, although it is interesting that in such households the celebration of Christian festivals is usually not accompanied by religious rituals (such as attending Mass) but by religious symbols.
When I was a child, we celebrated Christmas, despite having two Jewish parents. There’s a photo of me at six years old stirring the mix for the Christmas cake, which we used to decorate with a wintry scene every year. We used to hang up stockings, have a tree, the whole works. There was nothing Christian about it in our minds, despite the name, and certainly nothing religious for us – my parents explained that it was something all the other kids at school were doing so they didn’t want us to feel left out. As I grew up, though, I told my family that I no longer wanted to celebrate Christmas because it didn’t seem right to me – we were Jewish and 60% of the kids at my school were Jewish – and I didn’t really want to celebrate a festival that wasn’t my own. I realize now that we weren’t celebrating a festival, but we were taking a faith observance from another religious community, stripping it of all its essential faith aspects, and turning it into a secular celebration of capitalism and of community. Now that I interact with faith leaders from many traditions, I see how painful it is to some of them that people have taken their festival and stripped it of the religious aspects upon which that celebration was founded.
So, where does that leave us in the Jewish community today? For some Jews, their family dynamic is such that celebrating Christmas is an act of love. That celebration might be religious, for example, by attending mass at their partner’s or parent’s church just as they might hope that their non-Jewish family member might come with them to Temple for Rosh Hashanah. That observance might not be religious, though, it may be a less religious acknowledgement of something that resonates strongly with that Christian family member. In many Jewish households, today is a day when the Christian majority celebrate their festival and so Jews who have time off work gather together, either for Chinese and a movie, or for other food and company. For many Jews, Christmas is no longer a Christian festival but is a day of presents and companionship. It’s this form of celebration which is probably most influenced by the consumer culture in which we now live, a culture which seeks to commercialize every aspect of people’s lives, even those which are sacred to some people.
At this time, many prominent Jews ring alarm bells and cry from the rooftops about assimilation and the end of Judaism. But there’s no need for that to be the case. After all, this little boy with the Christmas cake ended up being a Rabbi.
Instead, I believe that we should ask ourselves what it means to authentically live in two civilizations today. I believe that that means not seizing another faith tradition’s customs, desacralizing them and making them our own. I also believe that means showing respect and love to Christians friends, neighbors and family members. There is no one-size-fits-all approach for Jews on Christmas, although I will say is that any Jew who attends Shabbat services on Christmas gains extra mitzvah points!!
So, may today be the example we set to our children and to others in which we demonstrate our living in two cultures, not by abandoning our own culture or by desacralizing and commercializing another. May we all use today to appropriately honor another religious tradition while also honoring our own. May we extend our love to our Christian friends and family as they celebrate their festival, and this Shabbat, as we also celebrate our own. May our observance of Shabbat today be the model of tolerance, love and friendship that helps us continue to live in two cultures. And let us say, Amen.