Celebrate vs. Participate

Christmas raises the perennial questions in the American Jewish community: Can we be part of holidays that are not our own? Natalie Portman demonstrated a way for our interfaith families to do it as she explained to Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show, November 29, 2016 (the 28th or 29th of Cheshvan, depending).

We Jews invite others into our tent all the time. The Jewish sense of hospitality is to welcome the stranger, without regard to their particular beliefs. We welcome everyone into our Sukkah; the Shabbat dinner table is open as well. So what happens when the tables are turned? How do we accept the mitzvah of their hospitality, even when particular beliefs do not coincide with our own? When the Jewish world meets other faiths or traditions, there are borders and boundaries that need to be navigated.

How might we participate if we are not able to fully celebrate?

American Christmas begs this question. The basis for the holiday is, of course, the Christian belief in the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a powerful and beautiful message of God’s love and hopes for the world. But it is not our theology. However, the commercial interests in our country have continued to secularize the holiday and as traditional boundaries between religions have become more porous, Christmas has permeated the American landscape. All in all, a holiday dedicated to “peace on earth” and “goodwill toward men” is not a bad thing to embrace and arguably the real problem with these sentiments is that they do not endure throughout the entire year. Furthermore, although many Jews have spouses that convert to Judaism, Jews are intermarrying. Both of these realities create a space in which non-Jewish family traditions and beliefs come up against Jewish traditions and beliefs. And in an increasingly open culture, many Jews would like to enjoy the spirit of the holiday.

Christmas has become an American holiday for many, including many American Jews. The theology has been all but completely stripped away for many, and for the others, the theology is greeted as something non-threatening. The question for us is whether we engage. And if we engage, how do we do so while keeping our own sense of authenticity. For couples that come from different faith traditions, such as Natalie Portman’s, she shows us how to honor our birth families and celebrate together. Although Ms. Portman’s husband, Benjamin Millepied, converted, his family has not. The two of them have respectfully brought the two families together without sacrificing their chosen identity. For some Jews, this is not a conversation in which they care to engage. But for those of us who live in this space, and those numbers are steadily increasing, it is incumbent upon us to find ways to connect, build bridges, and find common ground. If we do, the possibilities are extraordinary.

Happy Holidays!

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