The December Dilemma from a New Viewpoint

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 15, 2017 / 27 Kislev 5778

Summary: Rabbi Kosak shares some thoughts about Jewish families with Christmas trees. What does that mean in today’s world? 

The December Dilemma from a New Viewpoint

At the end of October, I wrote that celebrating Halloween can be considered permissible for an observant Jew. As part of my justification, I shared an extract from an opinion offered by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was a leading 20th century decisor of Jewish law and for my own background thinking also utilized the work of other Jewish legal thinkers like Rabbi Michael Broyde. They did not address Halloween, but were examining whether an observant Jew may observe New Years or Thanksgiving or other non-Jewish customs. Nonetheless, it seemed to me that their reasoning could be faithfully applied to Halloween in our time, which no longer has religious meaning.

Rav Feinstein had stated that when a custom has become divorced from its religious roots “there is already no prohibition of imitating gentile custom.” Since Halloween no longer had any connection to its pagan origins, it seemed to me that there ought not be a problem for Jewish children to also go trick or treating.

What happened next should not have surprised me, but it did. A number of people asked whether the same legal justification could be applied to Christmas. After all, they reasoned, a great number of people who have Christmas trees don’t do so out of any connection to Jesus or Christianity. It is simply pleasant to display a decorated evergreen tree in their homes to mark the winter season.

Those who wrote to me had good reason to ask the question. These were people with non-Jewish partners—and even though many of their partners did not practice or believe in Christianity (some do), they had a strong cultural connection and took enjoyment from having a tree. Often times, it was already their custom to have a tree in their home because it was so important to their life partner. One person even expressed a sense of shame not for their decision to have a tree, but because they felt that the Jewish world would look down at their choice. They had internalized the painful ways in which the Jewish community can sometimes shun people.

At the time, I replied to several of the people with six halakhic reasons why Rabbi Feinstein’s argument couldn’t be applied to Christmas. I then provided some suggestions for how those who still were going to have a tree might do so in the most Jewish way possible. Those suggestions are included at the bottom of this article.

In between that, though, and while our CNS contingent was at the USCJ convention in Atlanta, we had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He spoke about how we used to think about Jewish identity from an essentialist perspective. By this he meant that there was some essential, irreducible behavior or ethnicity that makes someone Jewish. But he argued that this is only one way to think about Jewish identity. We might instead think of Jewish identity occurring on a spectrum or in a context. For example, on Friday night someone might go to services or have a Shabbat dinner. Other days of the week, though, they are a professional and their Jewish identity is less relevant. In today’s world, this notion of a contextual identity is probably a more accurate description of how most of us think about our Jewish selves.

This “map” that Kurtzer offered really got me thinking. It made me realize that Christmas customs are beyond my personal red line for Jewish behavior, and that this was part of the reason I couldn’t apply Rabbi Feinstein’s reasoning to a Christmas tree. It also allowed me to understand that for many other Jews in today’s world, the essentialist understanding doesn’t describe how they feel or act or “do” Jewish. There are contexts and situations where all of their actions are Jewish, and other situations where they choose to do all sorts of things that aren’t about that identity—or any other religious identity. Some Jews have Christmas trees because they love their partners; because for the rest of the year, their partners are “on-board” with their Jewish adventure; because the tree doesn’t “mean” anything religious.

It’s important that we recognize this. It is critical that we celebrate all the ways people do Jewish activities. It is necessary that we clearly comprehend how people live out their Jewish lives. For some Jewish families, the presence of an evergreen tree shouldn’t negate all the wonderful ways in which they build significant Jewish lives for themselves.

Nonetheless, as a rabbi it is my duty to help people live robust Jewish lives. One of the ways that occurs is by providing a framework of Jewish values that can inform all aspects of their daily existence and the choices they make.

Given these concerns, and recognizing that there are many interfaith or mixed background families in our community who choose to have a tree, I would suggest the following steps can help them add meaningful Jewish content into that decision.

  1. Bal Taschit (avoid unnecessary waste) The use of an artificial tree that can be used for several decades will reduce the destruction of trees; such long-term usage should also counter the fact that artificial trees use petroleum in their fabrication. If one can find such a tree that uses recycled content, all the better. If one prefers the aesthetics of a “live” tree, it would be best to find one that is grown locally or that is a scrub tree that one needs to clear from one’s own or a friend’s property in any case. Limiting its size might also help in this regard.
  2. Hiddur Mitzvah (adding beauty to our Jewish lives) The use of ornaments that are Jewish in nature or that emphasize that this tree is not in any way connected with Jesus and Christmas could help to transform the symbolic meaning of the tree. Or perhaps this would be viewed as inappropriate?
  3. One who chooses a tree and follows the above guidelines ought to also heighten their own observance of Hanukkah. It is, after all, a holiday that celebrates our right to be Jewish, and marks a historical victory over the attempt to suppress our culture by imposing another culture on our own Jewish religion and culture. We live in a time where many Jews don’t possess deep literacy and knowledge of their own traditions, religion and culture. If a Jew wishes to embrace another tradition’s symbol, it makes sense that they should simultaneously learn more about their own.
  4. Traditionally and halakhically, the Hanukkah menorah is meant to be lit in a conspicuous place where all can see it. I would want to be sure that a family who chooses to have a tree is comfortable placing their menorah (chanukkiyah) in their front window. We want to feel proud of our Jewish heritage.

Finally, when we think about “using” this important symbol of Christianity for non-Christian reasons, we might also want to ask ourselves, “is this cultural appropriation?” “Have I diminished the religious significance of this Christian symbol by using it for my own purposes?” There is not a right or wrong answer to this question, but it is a worthwhile and respectful discussion to hold. As an example, many Christians have taken to holding a Passover seder. Some Jews feel that this is cultural appropriation while others are not troubled by it.

Sending you Chanukkah blessings from multi-cultural Portland,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Discuss how you navigate Jewishly in a pluralistic society.
  2. Do cultures have a “right” or “ownership” to the symbols they created? Why or why not? When may one use another culture’s symbols? Why?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.