(Note: This article may be of interest only to Jewish readership, and is likely not of interest to others. Though all are welcome to read, the message is one Yidishkeit for Jews.)
A great deal of the Chumash, deals with the central and revolutionary message of Judaism, that there is but one gd (arguably), and that Jews (more correctly Hebrews or Israelites) must worship him and not idols as was accustomed in Biblical times. Israel’s difficulty with this task is one of the central if not the central theme of many of the writings of the prophets. Reading our ancients texts today, it seems almost ridiculous that these Jews, brought out of bondage in Egypt, led to their promised land, continued to worship absurd little wood, stone and clay figurines.
Not Moses nor Aaron and his holy descendants (the cohanim – priests), nor the Judges, King David and the prophets could wipe out this stain from the Jewish people. The scriptures tell us clearly how this often led to calamity, but certainly we know that it led many Jews throughout the centuries to assimilation and being cast out from “the tribe” – a people that have remained small in number despite being one of the most ancient. Sure, Jews have often been killed, converted by force and persecuted (in recent memory of course we have example of an unimaginable horror that perhaps halved the Jewish world population), but certainly the major factor that has limited the size and growth of the Jews in relation to their gentile neighbors has been this assimilation. The lure of idol-worship took its toll in every generation, most of Israel’s 12 (really 13) tribes in fact fell prey to it as we shall see, but this also indicates something very peculiar about those who have remained faithful to the precepts of their fathers. We shall return and examine that further.
With a modern reading of “idol worship”, these texts and stories lose much of their relevance. It is hard to find Jews today, itching to bow down to a small clay statuette. And it’s equally hard to imagine why it was so alluring then.
That is because the “modern reading” is an incorrect reading. Idol worship does not, necessarily, mean to kneel, praise and beseech immovable objects created by questionable craftsmen. Firstly, this oversimplifies the true beliefs of ancient pagans, who were at least as intelligent as we are today. It is clear from ancient sources, that at least in many cases if not most, pagans did not believe that a specific idol was a god itself, but rather a representation of him or a tool to communicate with him.
The attraction of such devices is easy to appreciate, and they have not in the least been eradicated. A big part of Protestantism’s issue with the Catholic church, was the liberal use of images, icons, amulets and the like (which they saw as at least bordering on idol worship). One need only imagine the power that a cross has for many Catholics, who can be seen “praying to it” in hand or even kneeling before it in the case of a large church crucifix. It is quite obvious to us today, that Catholics do not literally believe that a wooden cross is a god itself.
Judaism itself is not free of such trappings, Torah scrolls, Teffilin, mezuzzot, the Temple Mount, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and certainly the (missing) Ark of the Covenant are but a few examples; here again, the belief was not then or now that any of those is a god nor Gd itself.
More importantly however, regardless of idol-worshiper theology or intentions, a much more accurate reading is that Jews are prohibited to emulate the “ways of the nations”. In Hebrew, “Avoda Zara”, foreign worship. This term serves as a title of an entire tractate of the Mishnah, which unfortunately was heavily censored during the middle ages because much of it offended Christian censors. For example, the term seems to have been often changed to “avodat kokhavim u-mazalot”, AKUM (worship of stars and constellations) or “avoda elilim” (worship of idols/false gods). The changed terms would thus not apply to Christians (themselves looking down upon astrology, and certainly not believing that they worshiped neither idols nor a false god). But it is of note to remember, the most important Talmudic term, retaining its place as title of the tractate, is Foreign Worship.
So Jews are prohibited from following the customs of the gentile nations. During biblical times, those happened to have been idolatrous and pagan. The word idolatry itself, from the Greek εἰδωλολατρία “eidololatria”, is a compound of εἴδωλον –eidolon “idol” and λάτρις latris “worship”. It seems to be a loan word from the Hebrew “Avodaht elilim”, which is not really originally “idol worship” but either “worship of gods” or “worship of naught” (false gods, vanity, nothingness). The Greek ediolotria does not occur in neither the Septuagint nor in Josephus or Philo, and so seems to be a later borrowing of the Hebrew term.
Thus today, we retroactively insert much of what we think about idolatry today back into the Hebrew texts quite anachronistically. It is true, the Torah also clearly prohibits worshiping graven images and statues in separate prohibitions (for example, the second commandment as opposed to the first), but we err in lumping all the other foreign worship prohibitions together as merely bans on idolatry. The Tanakh emphasizes over and over, as no other subject, the prohibition of worshiping other gods or foreign gods, and of following the ways of the nations. When more specifically “idols” are what is meant by the text, other terms such as גִּלֻּלֵיהֶם (their idols) are often used.
I can only assume that much has been written in modern times about how our modern version of “idol worship” can be materialism, vanity or the unhealthy fascination of Hollywood and the media; no giant conscious leap is necessary, modern pop “culture” (for lack of a better word) is literally peppered with the term “idol”. Be it the popular American Idol, or the widely accepted practice of people (especially youngsters) stating that their idol or idols are such and such (typically singers, movie stars, or professional athletes). There may be much merit, some of it related, in such positions, but it is not the topic of this discussion. Rather, I fear that the type of idol worship that is prevalent in the Jewish world today is not so metaphorical or in a parallel social sphere, but simply very much the base, mere and alluring idol worship that some of our ancestors found so hard to avoid in antiquity.
The prohibitions in the Chumash and in the Tanakh are many, we will take a brief look. But first, let me stab at the heart of the matter. Today, Jews, specifically in the USA, but worryingly ever more so across the globe, are partaking in the holidays of their gentile neighbors. What is stunning about this phenomena is that it is not as one would expect, limited to “secular”, reform or non-observant Jews, but increasingly common is the site of otherwise very observant Jews celebrating all manner of non Jewish holidays. Only a few short years ago relatively speaking, this would have been unheard of (of observant Jews that is, not of the non-observant Jew who is almost always only one or two generations away from total assimilation), and that is the reason why we as a people are still around.
More on that shortly, but first to our texts:
The Hebrew Texts
(in most of these, “the nations” is הַגּוֹיִם – the goyim, “the gentiles”)
Firstly of course, Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20 with the Ten Commandments:
I am the LORD thy G-d, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods (לֹא-יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים) before Me.
The Hebrew here, says literally “other gods” and nothing about idols.
Deutronomy 12:30 when you settle in the land of the gentile nations:
take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying: ‘How used these nations to serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.’
lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood;
and in some of the harshest words in the Torah it goes on as consequences (18-19):
and it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying: ‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart–that the watered be swept away with the dry’;
the LORD will not be willing to pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and His jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD shall blot out his name from under heaven;
Jeremiah 10:2-3 – אֶל-דֶּרֶךְ הַגּוֹיִם אַל-תִּלְמָדוּ (Learn not the ways of the nations)
thus saith the LORD: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are vanity;…
or as it is written:
with whom the LORD had made a covenant, and charged them, saying: ‘Ye shall not fear other gods, nor bow down to them, nor serve them, nor sacrifice to them;
For some of the consequences of the natural tendency for some of the Jews to stray into the foreign ways, there are ample examples. 2 Kings chapter 17 relates how the northern tribes (during the reign of Hoshea) strayed and “and walked in the statutes of the nations” (Heb: וַיֵּלְכוּ, בְּחֻקּוֹת הַגּוֹיִם). The word translated as statutes is usually laws, customs or traditions. The Tanakh tells us that as a result of these transgressions, Assyria was able to conquer Israel (all but the kingdom of Judah in the south), and deport many of the Hebrews to places throughout the empire. Likewise, they brought foreigners from elsewhere to repopulate (this strategy, common to many expansionist empires in antiquity was a way to quell nationalistic resistance in a specific area). Some of the resulting mixed population, taught by some of the cohen priests, become the ancestors of the Samaritans.
The northern tribes however, unlike the southern ones during their later exile by Assyria’s successor Babylonia, in large part cease to exist after they are scattered. Already being prone to adopt the “ways of the nations”, they assimilated into the cultures that they were dispersed among. This leads to the many legends of the “Ten Lost Tribes”. Though probably some of them remained as Jews, and subsequently rejoined the rest of the Jewish community once large portions of Judah were exiled later as mentioned above (Josephus mentions them for example), it seems that the vast majority assimilated into historical oblivion; most of the tribes disappearing as identifiable units. We take for granted the fact that Jews have survived as a people against all the odds throughout history, but too often forget that out of our 12 or 13 tribes, only one really in large part survived (of course with the integration of much of Benjamin, Shimon, significant parts of Levi, and presumably at least some members of all the tribes).
The very fact that what were Hebrews or Israelis, became known worldwide as “Jews” (from the one tribe of Judah) is testament to this fact. Much as if all Americans disappeared but for Virginians, and then people learned to say “Virginian” instead of “American”, since they would not ever meet any other types. And if by chance they came upon a lone surviving South Carolinian, having the same characteristics that all Americans share, they would call him a Virginian just the same.
Ironically, the Jewish holiday most besieged by “foreign worship” is a commemoration of the triumph of Judaism over it. Due to nothing more than the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas in the calendar, Hanukkah, specifically in the USA, has been morphed into its antithesis. And in perhaps an equally damaging turn of affairs, the “Christmas Season” has been abolished to make way for the “Holiday Season”.
That is of course a topic for another day, but sufficed to say that for Jews, this should be quite embarrassing. The Christmas Season should be left alone as the Christmas season, and the attempts of non-observant Jews to instill equal “non-obsertavism” on their gentile neighbors are ill-conceived at best. While I am arguing here that Jews should not celebrate christian holidays, it should be tautological that Christians should happily do so. In the case of the US specifically, Jews, who have been fortunate to be treated exceedingly well there due to the enlightened principles of liberty the country’s forefathers instituted, should realize that it is a Christian country, with an overwhelmingly christian population, and let it remain so. Similarly, Christians need not in the slightest feel that they need to tone down or hide their festivities from public view due to the fact that a minority of the population may not be Christian. It is obvious throughout American life today that there indeed is a war on Christmas, a war whose invading soldiers will accept it as a vague nondescript time of festivities in order to stimulate the economy and institute a yearly pop culture shopping frenzy, but who wish to obliterate any public mention of its true historic and religious meanings.
What an ironically tragic way it would be to repay the US’s historic tolerance of Jewish presence, by demanding intolerance of the majority’s Christianity. I for one, would take no part in that.
Back to Hanukkah, one of the relatively minor holidays (not mentioned in the Tanakh at all), and one of the last holidays instituted, even after Purim. Amazingly, and unlike Purim, it is virtually not mentioned in the Mishna either. So, though personally a great favorite, Hanukkah in the halakhic (Jewish law) totem-poll is pretty far down as far as holidays are concerned. Much like in 1948, when Israel fought and won its war of Independence, Judaism at the time of the Maccabees was already well established, and the Bible canonized. Thus the holiday was added to the calendar as a festive commemoration of our victory (allowed by the precedent of Purim) but not having the force of law of a Pesach or Yom Kippour for example.
Much of American Jewry, not only think that Hanukkah is the most important holiday, but that it is pretty much the only Jewish holiday. The gift-giving has also evolved to mirror Christmas gifts, and more tragically-confused Jews will even host “Hanukkah bushes” and the like in brazen attempts to mirror Christmas. Why those Jews simply don’t convert to Christianity and have a proper Christmas tree in their home is beyond me.
And what victory exactly is Hanukkah supposed to be commemorating? Well in terms of military arms it was Judean armies mostly against Syrian/Macedonian/Greek armies, but the essence of the war was a cultural war against Hellenism. Hellenism had quickly dominated the ancient world after Alexander’s conquests (and had started its spread even before this). The brilliance of the Greeks in philosophy and the natural sciences, combined with their unbreakable hoplite of the Phalanx (or more so the Macedonian Phalangite with his sarissa) made for an irresistible culture. Akin to the USA in the 1950’s to 1990 one would imagine, with the world craving everything American from Coca-Cola to Rock-n-Roll, just much more intensely.
The Greeks offered a glorious vision of mankind, and if they could outfight and outwit, and out-philosophize the known world, then everything about their culture must be superior. This meant not only copying the very successful phalanx tactics and philosophical curiosity to understand the world around us, but copying everything else from the Greek language to Zeus, Poseidon and Hades.
There were all sorts of degrees of “Hellenization” of course, and some stayed quite Jewish while attempting to syncretize as much of Hellenistic thought as was possible within or into Judaism. Philo of Alexandria perhaps, is the best extant example we have of the beginning of what may have developed into a Hellenistic Judaism. Others of course, were happy to offer sacrifices to the Olympian gods, and defile the Jerusalem temple, and some radically Hellenized Jews, actually asked the Seleucid kings to ban circumcision and other Jewish practices. Very quickly, Jews of all classes start adopting Greek names, either in conjunction with Hebrew names or alone.
It was clear that the rapid Hellenization if not stopped, would mean the end of the Jews as a people. This is in fact what it meant for many others in the same period we no longer hear about, from Idumeans (Edomites) and Moabites to Phoenicians (outlasted by one of their daughter colony, infamous Carthage and its Punic empire). It is this that leads brave Mattityahu and his sons (the Maccabees) to revolt, and an ultimate victory that allows for the continuation of the Jewish people.
As Maccabees I tells us:
In those days there went out of Israel wicked men, and they persuaded many, saying: Let us go, and make a covenant with the heathens [gentiles] that are round about us: for since we departed from them, many evils have befallen us.
And the word seemed good in their eyes.
And some of the people determined to do this, and went to the king: and he gave them license to do after the ordinances of the heathens.
And they built a place of exercise in Jerusalem, according to the laws of the nations:
And they made themselves prepuces, and departed from the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathens, and were sold to do evil.
Later, King Antiochus decreed that the Jews should be like all others:
And the king sent letters by the hands of messengers to Jerusalem, and to all the cities of Juda: that they should follow the law of the nations of the earth,
Messengers from Antiochus arrive in Mod’in, where Mattityahu is a respected leader. They believe that if he complies first, all other resistance will wither away and so they attempt to threaten and bribe him before the community:
And they that were sent from Antiochus, answering, said to Mathathias: Thou art a ruler, and an honourable, and great man in this city, and adorned with sons, and brethren.
Therefore come thou first, and obey the king’s commandment, as all nations have done, and the men of Juda, and they that remain in Jerusalem: and thou, and thy sons, shall be in the number of the king’s friends, and enriched with gold, and silver, and many presents.
Then Mathathias answered, and said with a loud voice: Although all nations obey king Antiochus, so as to depart every man from the service of the law of his fathers, and consent to his commandments:
I and my sons, and my brethren will obey the law of our fathers.
God be merciful unto us: it is not profitable for us to forsake the law, and the justices of God:
We will not hearken to the words of king Antiochus, neither will we sacrifice, and transgress the commandments of our law, to go another way.
Sadly have we not preserved nor found the original Hebrew for the text of the book of Maccabees… But these powerful words, Mattityahu’s gallant defiance may very well have been originally in the Greek that remains with us today, as he roared back at the would-be Achean messengers.
It is important to note that what troubled the Hellenists much more than the Jewish rites, was the Jews’ insistence on refusing to abide by other rites as well. Here Mattityahu is refusing to join in with gentile practices. He will not “go another way”.
One can only imagine what he and his warrior sons would have thought to see the celebration meant to commemorate their victory, being morphed into a “thanksgivukkah” or a secularized Christmas adorned with Hanukkah bushes.
Avoda Zara and “Fitting in”
To point to the power and allure that is “avoda zara”, the Maccabees’ own descendants, rulers of the Hasmonean dynasty that the Maccabees established (there had not been an independent Jewish kingdom since the conquest of Judah by Babylonia half a millennia earlier) themselves became Hellenized, losing the support of much of the population and ultimately inviting the growing power of Rome to rule Israel, and thus ending the last Jewish independent homeland for 2,000 years (until 1948 and modern Israel), and starting an equally long term of persecution and oppression.
Hopefully, one can start to see, this is not about the urge to worship inane objects, but rather to emulate and “fit in with” the dominant culture of the time. The very peoples that lost their identity to Hellenism during this time, later lost that new identity to Islam and the Arab conquests. A myriad of people who once though of themselves as Babylonians, Assyrians, Arameans, Amorites, Nabateans, Berbers, Sumerians, Akkadians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Philistines to name but a few, now all call themselves Arabs. From Morocco to Iran, “Arab” replaced endless ethnicities and cultures. Of course, this was achieved by a healthy dose of Jihad as an incentive, but driving it is that same human urge to fit in.
It is a timeless and strong human urge. One that most nations do not overcome as they are relegated to the pages of history, one after the other, from Hittites to Vikings. One that the Jew must overcome every generation if he is to survive.
So what happened to the “moderate” Hellenizers who had created a Hellenistic Judaism? They disappeared of course, into the oblivion assimilation. Hopefully many reverted back to more traditional Judaism, but certainly many simply took the last steps into full assimilation. Hellenistic Judaism, which seemed so attractive at the time (much as reform Judaism does today for many), so modern, enlightened, and yet not totally disloyal to past and heritage, rather quickly ceased to exist.
The Mishna and the Rabbis
For the Rabbis, not only was it obvious that Jews were not permitted to partake in non-Jewish holidays, but they elaborated many other prohibitions to make sure Jews did not even get near them. For example, Avoda Zara 1:1, says that Jews are forbidden to sell, buy, loan or repay gentiles for 3 days before their holidays, while other opinions hold that the ban extends to 3 days after as well. So not only could a Jew not attend the festivals, but not even get near for 3 days prior.
Of course, the biggest obstacle for Jews to participate in foreign holidays was the laws of Kashrut. Holidays are almost invariably linked to feasting, and Jews could not and cannot eat the foods therein (nor even the wine) due to dietary laws. Of course, observant Jews today are getting around this issue by a stunning feat of strategy… hosting the non-Jewish holiday themselves! Observant Jews cannot attend the Thanksgiving dinner of their neighbors and partake in their Turkey, but they can simply make their own with only Jews present!
The ancient Rabbis would have been at a complete loss to fathom the Jews in and of themselves, replicating the non-Jewish holidays in their own homes inorder to follow Kashrut!
Jews Must be Separate
Without delving into deep philosophy of the why’s nor into theology, if we can establish the premise that Judaism aims to survive, then it was clear that it must separate. Judaism is filled with separations, of the holy and the mundane, the pure and impure, Israelites, Levites and Cohens and many others. If the Jews are to survive as a people in this world, whether it is as to be a “light onto the nations” (note that vast part of the world is now monotheistic and large parts of the world accept what can be termed Judeo-christian values or Noahide values) or simply to survive as a people, they must maintain their separation from the nations.
For people such as Christians and Muslims, this is much less critical because of the scale and dynamics of their religions. They are proselytizing religious, who are always seeking to gather new converts, and they represent a staggering number of people in the world. Neither Christianity nor Islam today, are near being at the brink of extinction but Judaism constantly tethers there.
Perhaps of even greater importance, is that unlike Islam or Christianity, the Jews are a people foremost before they are a religion or belief system, and so mere intermarriage annihilates Jews. This is not true of Christianity nor Islam, as anyone at any point, of any ancestry is welcome into either faith. They are faiths, and so believing in them is all that is required, but Jews are a people who are maintained as a people by their faith, but they are a people. Literally, “sons of Israel (Jacob)” and not merely his followers.
So as a Hindu Buddhist can hardly become an Irishman (since the Irish are a people), he easily can join their Catholic faith.
This fanatical separation has been one of the sources of hatred for Jews since ancient times. Greeks and Romans could not believe that Jews would not sit and “break bread” with them as all other people could (of course gentiles are welcome to eat with Jews, but Jews usually could not eat with gentiles due to the un-kosher food being served). Greeks and Romans were actually quite tolerant about private religious practices, and they varied within Greco-Roman empires immensely, but it was expected that you participate in the universal Greco-roman practices as well. Since ancient times, while more enlightened thinkers did not hold this against Jews and have realized Jews are simply following the commandments spelled out in Bible, which in fact have allowed their longevity, many other famous thinkers were infuriated by it.
The Rabbis themselves commented on this fact, and noticed that pagans labeled Jews as atheists and anti-social because of their refusal to worship other gods. “Whosoever denies idols is called a Jew” (Talmud Megilah 13). The Rabbis responded:
Whosoever recognizes idols has denied the entire Torah; and whosoever denies idols has recognized the entire Torah – (Midrash Sifre, Deut. 54 )
As soon as one departs from the words of the Torah, it is as though he attached himself to the worship of idols – (Midrash Sifre, Numbers 43).
Diodorus, citing Hecataeus of Abdera as rabid example has friends of Antiochus Sidetes advising him to:
wipe out completely the Jewish people, since they alone of all nations avoided dealings with any other people and looked upon all men as their enemies.
Josepus has the advisers urging the king to:
extirpate this nation because of the separateness of their way of life
And to be particularly malevolent, Philostratus quotes the Stoic Euphrates:
For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans, but against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separate from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies. What sense then or reason was there in chastising them for revolting from us, whom we had better have never annexed?
Of course it is interesting that Philostratus would have had the Romans not conquer Israel to begin with. But in any event, what should be very clear here is that the Jewish refusal to partake in all sorts of socio-religious activities of the empire was well known (and well hated). Also important is to note that no other people, despite the myriad of religious beliefs and ethnicities the empire included, were seen as refusing to partake in these activities, despite the fact that they must have obviously participated in their own particular customs and forms of worship as well.
I propose that all of Judaism’s laws, customs and traditions are naught without first the foundation of the prohibition of participating in others’ laws, customs and traditions. And furthermore, this foundation is why as a people the Jews have survived. As is evident by just the couple of examples above, this path is not easy, perhaps not even reasonable, and it often spurred the ire of our neighbors. Certainly dangling in front of the Jewish people was the opportunity to cast off these “unreasonable” limitations and join the rest of humanity. Many did, and they are gone. Often it does not start as a blatant repudiation of the Jewish faith and a public conversion, but just, layer by layer, the foregoing of the more limiting aspects of the faith, and little by little, immersing oneself into the social milieu of society at large.
One of the reasons that this is missed today, and is being seen as benign is because during the very religious middle ages, there was a lot of intolerance for Jewish customs themselves. Jews today, in much of the western world (though that is changing once again, with vast Muslim immigration in many countries) do not feel this pressure at all.
Much like in the Greco-Roman world, what they feel instead is pressure to “join in” to society at large. So in the US today, it is easy to go to shul during the High Holidays, it is even easy to walk around wearing a kippah, in most places in the country, no one would bother you at all for either of these. But that is part of being American today, that private worship is allowed in any which way you chose to… we are conditioned constantly to not judge anyone’s private affairs, from their sexuality to their religious preferences. But where there is still ample social pressure, is to join the widely held holidays and customs.
The question for a Jew in America today is firstly of course if he can avoid the Christmas eve dinner or party, but more so if he can manage to not give his girlfriend or wife flowers on St. Valentine’s Day and not take her out to a romantic date, if he or his kids can manage to not dress up on Halloween like everyone else, have a Thanksgiving Turkey dinner, and wear green and go drinking with pals on St. Patrick’s day. The answer for ever more Jews in America, and worldwide, observant and not observant alike, is “No”.
We have delved into plenty of the textual history of why this is not permissible, but for the more philosophically inclined or less halachikly inclined, let us explore the matter.
So What is Happening?
Throughout most of Jewish history, what I am here writing which unfortunately will sound crazy to many people, was taken for granted. Of course Jews do not celebrate other peoples’ holidays, they have plenty of their own! And while a less observant Jew could be less strict in actively performing many of the Jewish customs, he certainly wasn’t about to start performing Christian ones!
Even an agnostic or atheist Jew was hardly one who believed in Jesus and the trinity. So what has happened?
Well, besides the previously discussed phenomena in which pressure to not practice one’s specific rituals have largely disappeared in the modern world, whereas pressure to practice the majority’s remain, the Western world has become radically more secular. In countries where gentiles remain staunchly religious, Jews still today do not partake in their festivities. Mexico, where your humble author grew up, is a good example. The Mexican tends to be rather staunchly Catholic, and it his remembrance of his faith that makes the local Jewish community remember their own. When crosses, baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary are everywhere in Mexican traditions and festivities (in addition to some interesting influence leftover from native religions) it is easy for a Jew to remember that those are not for him.
Jews that up until recently lived or still live in Muslim countries have a similar story. While Soviet Jewry was largely assimilated by the fall of communism in the late 80’s and early 90s’, Jews that lived in Uzbekistan and similar places (where communism had been unable to wipe out the local Islam), remained largely traditional. In open, rapidly becoming secular places, such as pre-Nazi Germany, Jews assimilated at shockingly fast speeds (only to be reminded by others that they were Jews, even if they had forgotten) after 2,000 years of, as a community, not assimilating virtually at all.
A similar situation currently exists in the USA; though the US is inherently a Christian and gd fearing country, where Jews tend to reside (New York, Los Angeles) is much less so, and very much less so publicly. Therefore, religious holidays (obviously the very term “holy” “day” indicates what they are) look like secular celebrations. This helps to invite Jews into the practice. But we must remember, just as it was not simply the literal bowing down to an idol that was hateful to Judaism, and likewise not only the practicing of gentile religious holidays in the subsequent ages (without idols), what is prohibited to Jews and is most dangerous to their survival is the surrender to the customs of the non-Jewish society at large, “the ways of the nations”.
One of the reasons this is so difficult to adhere to, is because it makes Jews stand out, and makes them feel “different”. Exactly. If a person does not wish to be “different”, he does not wish to be a “Jew”, and given a generation or two, his descendants most likely will not continue to be Jews. This is especially difficult in a society that is open and tolerant of Jews. One must remember that just like it is tragically ironic to repay this tolerance with subverting the majority’s (who is providing that tolerance) religion, it is likewise a slap in the face to that very tolerance if what we do with it is self destruct.
If America has given us freedom to be Jewish, why must we use that very freedom to stop being it? Must we be whipped and oppressed in order to remember our fathers? Unfortunately many times many of us do. With a little more sechel, maybe we can do with less whipping.
The Common Failings (Holidays)
Many readers at this point will still be in denial that the holidays I mention are religious. They are as religious as Christmas or any other holiday; it is true as was pointed out that many non religious Christians (or descendants of Christians) celebrate them without religious meaning, but this does not change what the holiday is originally, nor what it continues to be for those who remain observant. In either case, they are certainly not Jewish holidays, and certainly part of the “ways of the nations”.
This one is even a problem for many Christians due to its pagan roots and connections with the “Day of the Dead”. But of course here I will not delve into what is properly Christian or not, and I leave that to our Christian friends who are much better educated on the subject. But Christian or pagan, Celtic, Roman or German, Halloween a Scottish version of “All Hallow’s Eve”, is the eve of the Christian All Hallow’s Day or All Saints Day (“hallow” of course related to “holy”).
The disguises have a rich history in several Indo-European religions, with the disguises related to spirits and the like. Ironically, Judaism has its own holiday where the custom is costumes (what a pun!), Purim, and yet the percentage of Jewish children in the US who dress up on Purim vs Halloween must be frightening.
Saint Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s and the like:
These should hopefully be obvious, they have the word “Saint” in their name and are holidays commemorating Catholic Saints. They require no further elaboration here though each of their histories is rich.
This all-American (and Canadian) holiday is rampant with American Jewry participation and even that of Jewish expats in Israel and elsewhere. It is a beautiful holiday undoubtedly, where families get together, give thanks, and share a delicious giant Turkey.
The pilgrims who established New England’s first colony in Plymouth were fantastically religious puritans. The very reason they emigrated to the New World was to find safe refuge for their religious practices. Though the exact timing is disputed, the first Thanksgiving was held in the colony at around 1621. The New England puritans brought over from Europe a tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving, and this tended steadily become an annual harvest Thanksgiving celebration by the later 1600’s. Obviously, the puritans’ rough early winters, and survival to the spring was part of the inspiration for their thanking gd.
More recently, leftists like to teach children in the public school system that the first Thanksgiving was about the puritan pilgrims thanking their friendly Indian neighbors (who they subsequently went on to eradicate from the continent) rather than gd. Pure nonsense. Thanksgiving continued to gain popularity as a religious annual holiday, and George Washington himself, after the Revolution, in 1789 declared the first Nation-Wide Thanksgiving as:
a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God
That sound secular to you?
Additionally, Thanksgiving unfortunately holds a special place in the hearts of many Americanized Jews. Because many are still wary of partaking in Christmas, since they cannot escape its obvious Christian significance, they rally around Thanksgiving with particular ardor. Christians meanwhile, tend to give it somewhat less importance since it is nearby Christmas that to a greater degree signifies the extended family getting together, all the good stuff that goes with it, and the greater all-around “prestige” as a holiday.
This leaves us with Jews not only celebrating Christian Thanksgiving, but many times embracing it with much more passion and gusto than their gentile neighbors. They get to feel as American as everyone else and prove it. For certain, their children will feel much less “wary” about Christmas.
Christmas and the related Christmas Season
If the holidays that commemorate Jesus’ birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection appear secular to you, you are well beyond my help.
Russian New Year
For a much less professional take on that I wrote a few years ago, look here.
So then what?
Children will naturally want to participate in these and any other fun looking (or not) activities that other kids in the society at large are participating in. It is part of healthy parenting to let a Jewish youngster know, that the beautiful lights he sees everywhere are part of the Christian celebration of Christmas, and that it is a beautiful holiday about cheer and goodwill (besides Jesus’ birth of course), and that it is a wonderful thing that his Christian peers are celebrating it, and remembering their heritage and likewise he too should remember his own.
The interesting thing about accepting a holiday’s religious nature and origin, is that then one (from another religion) is not forced to demolish that origin in order to be able to participate in it. A confident Jew follows his own customs, while he respects and allows others to follow their own. The alternative is a Jew who shreds religious meaning from both his own customs and those of gentiles around him, in order to not feel out of place. It is a great disservice to both people’s.
If you are so “atheist” and “secular” why do you feel the need to worship other people’s gods? That is not what you are doing you say? Of course it is… worshiping other gods has always been about the timeless aspect of human nature which bends to peer pressure and begs to assimilate. It is about doing what most people at the time think is reasonable, good, proper or “normal”. At one time and place, it was about praying to an idol, and in a different time and place it is about eating a giant turkey on Thanksgiving. Both seemed equally good and normal at their respective time and place, and to abstain from either seemed crazy and fanatical. To think it is an achievement to not bow down to an idol thousands of years after our non Jewish peers stopped doing it is rather short sighted.
There are Jews of all types of observance levels, from the most pious Haredim to nearly secular Jews who do not (or think they do not) observe many of the mitzvahs at all. That is one thing, and may we all learn to follow more of them, but one important aspect that should unite them all is that they do not observe other religions’ customs.
If this goes, what is left is simply gentiles with some quirky private traditions. If we cannot differentiate ourselves in public, we will shortly not differentiate ourselves in private either. The very first mitzvah a Jew observes, is his defiance in the face of social pressure (in the past it was much worse than that) of Avoda Zara – foreign worship.
If any of this sounds extreme or unreasonable, it is because in many ways it is. The Hittites and the Jebusites, even the wild Goths and Vikings, they were all ultimately reasonable and so they are gone.
The Jews, will undoubtedly with Hashem’s help, always remain, but the question is if your descendants will be counted among them.
As mighty Joshua told us after he lead us into our promised land (Joshua 24:15-16):
וְאִם רַע בְּעֵינֵיכֶם לַעֲבֹד אֶת-יְהוָה, בַּחֲרוּ לָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת-מִי תַעֲבֹדוּן–אִם אֶת-אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר-עָבְדוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר בעבר (מֵעֵבֶר) הַנָּהָר, וְאִם אֶת-אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹשְׁבִים בְּאַרְצָם; וְאָנֹכִי וּבֵיתִי, נַעֲבֹד אֶת-יְהוָה.
וַיַּעַן הָעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר, חָלִילָה לָּנוּ, מֵעֲזֹב אֶת-יְהוָה–לַעֲבֹד, אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים.
And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River [Euphrates], or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.’
And the people answered and said: ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD, to serve other gods;
Indeed, far be it from us.