Rabbi Lief’s Message: December 2016

Happy Holy Days

Just before Halloween, Ellie and I happened to be at the mall, and got to enjoy the piped in sounds of Christmas carols as the accompaniment to our shopping. Santa himself was available for photos; of course he was, it was only October!

To those who demand that we “put the Christ back in Christmas,” I say thank you! Thank God that we live in a nation where each person is free to practice her religion as she sees fit. The thought of Christians celebrating Christmas should not be offensive to anyone. At the same time, however, the suggestion that non-Christians ought to be celebrating Christmas, too, raises an important question: In a free society, governed as a democracy and not as a theocracy, can a holiday be both religious and civil at the same time? There is no need to call a Christmas tree a “holiday tree;” only one winter holiday has a tree as a symbol. There is no need to add other religious symbols to compensate for the presence of Christian symbols; just let the holiday be what it is: Christian.

In our Lafayette community, it is certainly the case that Christians of varying denominations make up the vast majority of our total population, though not every person in town is a Christian. In reality, our community is home to people of many religious faiths, in addition to those who might suggest they have no religious faith at all. Just as there should be no tyranny by the minority to prevent the majority from celebrating their holiday, so, too, should there be no oppression by the majority, forcing the minority to observe along with them against their wishes. The message of Hanukkah seems particularly relevant at this time of year. The Seleucid Greeks wished to outlaw the practice of Judaism in 165 BCE and the Jews fought back in a war for religious freedom. The theme of the holiday is that it should be acceptable for a minority to practice its own religion. In victory, the Jews did not demand that the Greeks give up the worship of Zeus and the rest of the Greek pantheon in favor of the practice of Judaism. Rather, they sought only the right to practice, as a minority, what they believed for themselves.

In the New Testament, Luke 2:14 describes the angels in heaven declaring, “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” upon hearing of the birth of Jesus. This, then, should be the reason for the season for our Christian friends. The celebration of Christmas ought to be a time for kindness toward others, not antagonism. If Jesus is the moral exemplar for Christians, then his message in Matthew 5:5 that, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” ought to give the arrogant pause. If one truly follows the teaching of Leviticus 19:18, which bids us to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” then we should support our friends and neighbors in the free practice of their religion, just as they should defend us from those who would tell us that we need to change what we believe or risk condemnation.

There is no doubt in my mind that Christmas is a religious holiday, it just isn’t a part of my religion. The worst part of the over-commercialization of this sacred Christian observance is that some have forgotten that it is a sacred observance, not just a reason to go shopping. The purpose of giving presents to friends and loved ones is a reminder that Christians believe Jesus himself was a present from God to the world. That I do not share that belief does not make it less important to those who do. Let us support religious freedom for all. Let us not try to profane the sacred by removing the religious meaning from Christmas, and in return, there should be no pressure on non-Christians to celebrate a Christian holy day. As a minority, let us ask the majority, “If someone doesn’t believe as you do, does it prevent you from believing as you choose?” To all of the Christians in our community, I wish you a very Merry Christmas this December. To our fellow Jews, and all those of other minority faiths, may the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees inspire us to stand up in defense of freedom of religion for everyone.