“Jews and Christmas”


“Jews and Christmas”

Lord! What a topic!

No, please no.

Years ago, I attended an interfaith discussion group peopled mostly by clergy, Jewish and Christian, also theologians and philosophers – all “religionists” as they are sometimes called today. It was called The Rainbow Group and could as soon have included representatives from the Lakota, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic or other commitments, but Christians and Jews happened to be the ones most accessible to each other in New York then. Michael Wyschogrod, a Jewish philosopher-theologian for whom I have the highest respect, personal and philosophical, was the mover behind it.

The discussions at the Rainbow Group were intensely – almost world-shakingly – interesting, in a way learned discussions rarely are. The reason was clear. Everybody seated around the table thought God was listening! So nobody lied or tried to please the person seated next to him. They were truthful, to the best of their ability.

Anyway, one speaker (sorry, forgot his name), who was presenting a talk on Jewish/Christian relations over the centuries, said that Jews were religiously obligated to go to the House of Study every night of the year but one: Christmas Eve. Why no study on Christmas Eve? Because that was the night when they were most likely to get beat up by Christians if they ventured into the streets.

Writer and critic Edward Alexander has a recent book out, to which I gave a rave review on Amazon, titled Jews Against Themselves. The focus of this incisively scathing book is on the modern types, like for example the Jewish anti-Zionists with their brilliant careers.

(Why didn’t I think of that? Damn! I could have had a brilliant career too!)

Edward Alexander traces their spiritual ancestors: the Jewish apostates of medieval times. The Jews who went over to Christianity didn’t stop at the love of Jesus. Some of the most cunning and cruel Christian persecutions were begun, planned and expertly targeted with the help of these new-minted Christians. To the people whose ranks they had quitted, they constituted a grave danger — physical and moral — a stab in the back with another to the heart.

So Jews and Christmas? What do I think of it all? As a schoolgirl in P.S. 6, I sang Christmas carols and enjoyed them along with everybody else. I don’t recall feeling that this was even remotely like a betrayal. It didn’t make me Christian, any more than singing “Danny Boy” made me Irish. I still enjoy Christmas carols – the religious ones — not “Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” (That one makes me sick.)

As a teenager, I enjoyed watching Bible movies, whether it was Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida playing “Solomon and Sheba,” Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward as David and Bathsheba or Charlton Heston as Ben Hur the Jewish prisoner in Roman chains — getting a cool drink of water from Jesus — seen from the back with sounds of organ music. And best of all was teenage idol Jeff Hunter as Jesus, hangin’ on the cross with arms outstretched. These Hollywood movies were mostly made by Jews and carefully pruned of anything that might offend their co-religionists.

Although I’ve encountered anti-semitism in its varied guises, generally speaking it didn’t call itself Christian. Or if it did, it looked a little ashamed when it did.

I’m not a Christian, but that has little to do with Jesus. Christianity, the religion, has doctrines I don’t share: original sin, atonement through the crucifixion of Jesus alone, the Trinity. The first two are in Paul. I don’t know about the Trinity. Maybe that comes in later, via church councils. But if you want to find them in the gospels, you’ll have to read them in. Jesus doesn’t mention original sin, though he does describe himself in the terms used in Isaiah 53 for the Suffering Servant.   That’s all right with me, though I would also endorse the rabbinic tradition that regards the Jewish people as the Suffering Servant. The suffering presence of the Jewish people heals the world, quite as Jesus is thought to do.

The resurrected Jewish nation is today the most hated, targeted nation on earth. Christians are persecuted today as they have not been since the first century.

Till the New Year 2016, the town where I live will be lit up by its towering Christmas tree. I smile whenever I see it, since it reminds me and the busy shoppers of joy, hope and light.

Had the Maccabees not overthrown the Seleucid dynasty, establishing Jewish political and religious independence and reconsecrating the temple in Jerusalem – a military victory accompanied by the modest miracle celebrated at Hanukkah – there would have been no Jewish nation for Jesus to be born into. No Jews of whom he could say, “salvation is of the Jews.”

When I last looked, the placard-holders were still there, standing beside the towering, glowing Christmas tree in the center of town, braving wind and weather to accuse the Jewish nation of being an apartheid state. Their accusation is false. Twenty percent of the citizens of Israel are Arabs and they are in every walk of Israeli life.

When the messiah comes,

or comes back, as the case may be,

all that will have to be sorted out.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to “Jews and Christmas”

  1. Prudence Lezy says:

    Excellent, Abigail. Thank you.

    • Abigail says:

      It’s a pleasure to hear from you, Prudence. I am so gratified that you follow the blog and that the ties between us — across generations and miles — still hold.

  2. Jess says:

    Just beautiful.

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