Christmas and the future of Judaism in the United States - opinion

Will future US Jews be strong enough to separate Jewish from Christian traditions?

A DREIDEL made of Christmas lights sits on the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue in New York City earlier this month. (photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
A DREIDEL made of Christmas lights sits on the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue in New York City earlier this month.
(photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
It’s not often that I make public confessions, but as the saying goes, ‘tis the season, so here goes: I love Christmas carols. I hum along with the music piped in over speakers in stores and in malls. I enjoy Christmas lights. The sparkle and the glitter and the twinkling red and green lights bring vibrancy to all that they adorn. I enjoy the Christmas season. Christmas movies are heartwarming, people are smiling, and good cheer really is all around.
And I like traditional striped, peppermint, Christmas candy canes. Actually, I have yet to find a single candy cane that is not certified kosher.
Herein lies the rub of living in the United States, living as an engaged and active Jew, a lover of Israel and a Zionist. These are not just holiday with a “small H” symbols, these are Christmas Holiday symbols. They are Christian symbols. They are the trappings of a Christian society, a society in which even today, Christians are the hosts and Jews are guests.
The conundrum is deep.
Jews living in the United States and enjoying all that this great country has to offer are part of a society which is antithetical to Judaism. The claim, heard often and more often this time of year, that the culture of the United States is based on Judeo-Christian tradition, is a myth.
This is not to say that inter-religious dialogue is not important. On the contrary, it is very important. But Judaism and Christianity are very different from each other. They are not to be confused and they are not even similar.
Certainly, there are important values that Christianity and Judaism share, especially when compared to heathens, nihilists and people who have no traditions at all. But that does not make for true kinship. As a cultural label, the term Judeo-Christian is a relatively modern term. It was coined as a tool for liberal writers in America to reclaim the term “Christian,” which had been hijacked by fascists and antisemites.
Liberal writers in the 1930’s such as George Orwell used the term Judeo-Christian to reshape the public conception of Christian ideas.
The original, ancient, theological meaning of the expression Judeo-Christian referred to Jews who converted to Christianity. That theological concept meant that Christianity superseded Judaism – Judaism was taken over by Christianity. Original Christian teachings were found in what Christians call the Old Testament or the Jewish Covenant. Then a New Testament, a new Covenant took over. And so, the old was no longer valid. The old was no longer relevant. The new was an updated version, a better version.
PARENTHETICALLY, THAT is why I refer to their bible only as “The Bible,” and not to the one and only and forever Bible never as the “Old Testament.”
Modern American Jews in the US labor under the impression that Judeo-Christian is synonymous with shared moral and ethical values. While there are shared values between Christians and Jews, that is not a universal – it applies only to those who believe in values, those who value values.
Leading Jewish thinkers explain that dialogue is important, as are shared values, but that to think that Christianity and Judaism meld is incorrect – and dangerous.
Orthodox Jewish thinker Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that Christianity and Judaism are partners in confronting social injustice. They both value the teachings of the prophets, which are all lessons about social justice, but that’s where their similarity ends.
Leo Baeck, a leading Reform Jewish thinker, emphasized that Christianity placed an emphasis on “the completed version,” while Judaism emphasized the “unending process of thought.”
Conservative Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel used to ask about Christianity: Why do Christians care about what happens after death? According to them, we Jews are all destined to the same end: hell. Heschel’s teachings emphasized paying attention to what you do in this world, and letting God handle what happens in the next world.
Separating Christian culture from Jewish culture is not hard. Because Christian culture is so prevalent, children have a difficult time. A friend, an Orthodox woman, recalled that after her five-year-old granddaughter watched children’s programs and cartoons on her iPad, she asked for a Christmas tree in her home. Dora the Explorer had one. Barney decorated one. Christmas specials were all around her.
It was time for “The Talk,” the talk about Judaism and Christianity.
Having a menorah on the White House lawn right next to the White House Christmas tree is an attempt to create some symmetry. But there is no balance, no equity. The United States is a society based on Christian values.
The uniqueness of the Jewish community living in the United States is that Jews have been so free; that over the past two decades in the US, Jews as individuals have been able to flourish. There have been no barriers, no obstacles. That is remarkable success. But with that success comes a problem. It’s called complacency. It’s a tightrope we walk every day.
Will the next generation of US Jews be strong enough to simply enjoy the Christmas spirit, to hum along with the carols but not go out caroling? Will they be able to separate Jewish tradition from Christian tradition? Or will they light a Hanukkah menorah alongside their own Christmas tree?
I fear for the future of Judaism in the United States.