Christmas, Hanukkah and the battle for Jewish identity

Christmas is in the air. And on the ground, in the form of trees that have been brought into public spaces, and once again serve as a focal point for a conflict between the faithful.

The story this time comes from the Technion. The students’ union, out of respect for Arab Christian students, put up a Christmas tree in a space shared by students of all faiths. This caused a small stir, and led to a ruling by the Technion rabbi forbidding entry into that space, including eating in the various eateries that are part of it.

What’s the real issue? On the face of it, it has to do with Jewish fear of idolatry. Jews have avoided any contact with idolatry and have given their lives for it. Christmas is idolatrous; Christianity is idolatrous; a Christmas tree is idolatrous. Hence, all the strictness that applies to idolatry should apply to any contact with these.

The Christmas tree in the Technion Student Union (Credit – Rami Shllush)

I don’t believe this is the real issue. Concern for idolatry often masks a deeper concern – the concern for identity. There is no other way of accounting for the utter disregard of halachic history and the complexity of Jewish views of Christianity, when it comes to dealing with Christianity in contemporary Israel. Hundreds of years of sophisticated rabbinic reasoning that affirms the status of Christianity as non-idolatrous have been obliterated from collective memory, in favor of a uniform view of Christianity, and its various symbols as idolatrous. If the discussion were really about halacha in a true sense and about the status of Christianity as idolatry, we would be witnessing a much more nuanced discussion of these matters. If we don’t, then something else is going on.

Christmas and the battle for Jewish Identity
What is going on is a battle over Jewish identity, and to a certain extent sovereignty, what will “our” “Jewish” public space look like. Christian symbols are incompatible with affirmation of Jewish identity, and therefore must be fought. That Hanukkah and Christmas are celebrated this year at the same time is not a cause for irenic relations between the religions, that celebrate common purposes and common visions. It is occasion, in the mind of certain rabbinic voices, to oppose pagan and idolatrous views in a present day extension of the attitude of the Maccabees, who fought for the same cause – purity of Jewish religion and identity.

The quest for affirming Jewish identity is laudable. I share in it. However, it is practiced in a way that fails to take into account present reality and in many ways does genuine disservice to the cause it seeks to uphold.

Let us begin by noting that if affirming Jewish identity is achieved at the expense of ignoring the history of halacha and of Jewish-Christian relations then in fact one has sacrificed the depth dimension of Judaism, its celebration of learning, process and complexity, in favor of shallow identity construction.

Let us continue by noting that failure to take into account power shifts, the responsibilities placed upon us by being a majority and the implications of poor treatment of minorities for the global Jewish world, all indicate narrow thinking. Such thinking fails to consider the broader implications of the State of Israel as a foundational moment that place upon us new responsibilities and that opens up novel opportunities for engaging world religions and their members who live in our midst.

Let us further consider what it does to Jewish leadership, learning and ultimately identity to issue rulings within the mentality described above. The Technion’s rabbi does not have the power to forbid Christmas trees; he can only forbid Jewish students who would listen to him from entering a building where it is placed. In the above posting, the Rabbi, Elad Dukov, recognizes that the student union must serve all. He therefore enters into dialogue with the Jewish members of the student union. Why is there no dialogue with Christian students and representatives, in an attempt to find a solution, acceptable by all? (for what it’s worth, there seems to be a rabbi on campus, but no religious leader for faithful of other faiths).

In the absence of real dialogue, Wikipedia serves as a source of information on other religions. And so, the fact that Wikipedia labels the Christmas tree “pagan” makes it worse, as if upping the ante on the idolatry scale. Where is the discussion on changed meanings of symbols through history? Where is the needed discussion of when “pagan” is a historical and when it is a religious category? The superficiality of rabbinic discussion and of learning procedures seems suited to a world in which Facebook (where the rabbi posted) and Wikipedia (where the rabbi drew his information from) have replaced genuine encounter and true learning.

Should There be a Christmas Tree in a Public Place?
I will offer my view on this in a moment, but not before stating that this question, indeed the whole situation, is the wrong question. If the question is posed in the above manner, then the gut response is – “no”. The reasoning, as in the case of Rabbi Dukov, follows. We seek to avoid contamination by other faiths (Christian, pagan, whatever; facts are secondary; the desire for purity primary). We follow the precedent of history (what history? History’s lesson is complex). The ultimate reason that is offered by the rabbi is that Jewish blood was poured throughout the ages on such causes. (And have circumstances changed? What are power relations now? And what are contemporary views of Christians on Judaism?).

It is time to approach these issues through a different set of questions:
• What does it mean for us to be in power and what obligations should this place upon us in relation to religious minorities?
• Should religions collaborate for the common good and if so, what public acts of religious solidarity and collaboration are appropriate?
• What forms of positive contact should exist between Christians and Jews (and Christian and Jewish students)?
• What are our sources of mutual knowledge and what is the place for dialogue?
• Should our horizons of another faith be informed by its practitioners, or by our reading (Wikipedia or otherwise)?

The problems in Haifa are symptoms of much deeper problems. The problems stem from lack of contact, dialogue and knowledge of the other. More deeply, they stem from lack of care for the other. And, sadly, lack of knowledge and care are practiced as strategies for maintaining Jewish identity. No Christian symbols in the public place; no common municipal celebration that recognizes the other’s value. We will uphold our identity through avoidance, not through knowledge, dialogue or collaboration.

Sadly, this is the condition of present day Orthodoxy. The real issue is not whether or not a Christmas tree should be put up, but whether we can create a culture of dialogue that would allow us to tackle these issues differently.

I was approached recently by one of the parties involved in the Technion story, seeking my advice. My response was that the most important lesson is to begin a process of encounter, dialogue and humanizing of the other that would let both sides assume their full identity and break out of isolation as a means of constructing identity.

And what of the Christmas tree? I would not be in favor of it. To frame the problem of the Christmas tree in religious terms is the wrong approach. The Christmas tree is not part of Christian religion, but it is part of Christian culture, in the same way that dreidel, latkes and hanukkah gelt are not part of religion but of Jewish culture. I think it is appropriate to avoid expressions of another culture as part of upholding Jewish identity. Actually, all who consider Judaism as a culture rather than a religion ought to give pause to the implications of a cultural approach, including its boundaries. Precisely because of concern for identity and respecting the memory of history, and out of recognition of the uniqueness of Israel and the challenges of constructing its public space, I think there is something appropriate in maintaining a certain distance from particular symbols, as they are culturally loaded. When I am in New York, I am moved by the sight of a hanukkiah in the same office as a Christmas tree, because it is an expression of multi-culturalism. Israel has a long way to go before it can consider multi-culturalism. It is presently still fighting for its Jewish identity. But that should not be an excuse to deny religious minorities their voice and their space. I would therefore work towards some more private, intimate, off-center, solution for the needs of Christian students. Indeed, I was privy to correspondence by Jewish students at the Technion who said they would not be offended if a Christmas tree was put in a side-room.

We need to create the will to hear the other. Following it, there’s a way.

So, Happy Hanukkah, and to our Christian friends, Happy Christmas

This post appeared on the Times of Israel on December 20, 2016.

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