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December Dilemmas

This year, the last flickering candles of Hanukkah were long extinguished before Christmas Eve, so the mash up of celebrations proved less intense than some years. Nevertheless, the entire month of December provided ample opportunity for those who are concerned about such matters, to engage in the annual conversation about interreligious boundaries.

When my young daughter, bedazzled by the gorgeousness of Christmas, craved a tree indoors, we told her that she could have one, but only after Christmas was over. Acquired in early January, the tree became part of our celebration of the Jewish New Year of the Trees --a holiday that serendipitously falls soon after Christmas. We thought we had that one figured out until Soviet Jewish immigrants moved on to our block and brought their secular New Year’s tree tradition with them. The Russian revolution had banished Christianity, but not the longing to celebrate light and life in the darkest moment of the year. Our new neighbors were shocked when the Jews on the block informed them that their tree transgressed an important seasonal boundary. 

What can Jews borrow from Christmas without worrying about assimilation? (Christmas carols? Listening? Singing? Singing but lip-synching the word Christ?) _ Visits from Hanukkah Harry (yes, that is a thing)? At the Jewish moms’ site Kveller, they are still arguing. On the other hand, can Father Andrew Greeley light Hanukkah candles without being accused of cultural appropriation (yes, that was a thing)?

Before December ends, I would like to weigh in. Let me state my credentials: I am interested in boundaries between religions. I like keeping them and I like crossing them. I care about Jews who care about boundaries. I also like learning about others’ religious practices and often participate. I spend a lot of time with people of other religions who think about religious boundaries in many different ways.

I want to understand when and why it makes sense to opt in to others’ spiritual practices and when it does not. I also want to understand the ways in which this conversation has become irrelevant in and why -- in other ways -- it still matters.

Christmas and Hanukkah are a good test case. As Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart knew, Hanukkah and Christmas are not commensurate, they are not even in the same league as holidays.  Unlike Pesach and Easter, which really are related holidays (in romance languages, Easter is called Pasques for a reason), discussing our December holidays together almost makes no sense.

Almost. We shouldn’t move too quickly to separate the two observances. The Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE in December, three years after the Syrian Greek conquerors had dedicated the Temple to Zeus and destroyed the Torah scrolls. The Books of Maccabees recounts how Jews negotiated their differences with Greek culture—including an intra-Jewish argument precisely about this question. Had the Jewish culture not survived that encounter, a century and a half later, Jesus would not have known the Torah, his life and teaching unimaginable. 

Fast forward three centuries when Christianity was still emerging and the date of Jesus's birth was unknown.  The Romans celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun) on the Winter Solstice. Some scholars believe that the Church fathers, worried that Christians would be tempted by the lovely light filled ritual, chose December 25th to focus Christians  on their own magnificent story of hope.

On the deepest level, what we share is celebrating renewal and the hope for light in darkness. Multiple ways of doing that (often involving candles) are part of our shared human heritage. On another level, this is a time for us to notice what our traditions were striving for in keeping their practitioners away from foreign glitter -- how to keep the next generation telling their unique stories. Each tradition has particular ways of reminding ourselves of the invincible sun when it appears to be slipping away.

One way of thinking about religious rites, symbols and practices is to turn to a popular set of gerunds used to describe religious life by sociologists — belonging, behaving and believing. When Mordecai Kaplan spoke about the primacy of belonging, his thought resonated for many Jews in 20th century America. Today, the idea resonates with people who were raised in a variety of thick traditions from Judaism to Islam to Roman Catholicism.Belonging is being part of something bigger than oneself.  Believing is affirming something true.

In many (but not all) Christian spaces, communion is understood as an affirmation of membership, either through belonging or belief.In those spaces, a non-Christian might well choose not to participate. 

In many (but not all) Jewish spaces, being called to the Torah is understood as an affirmation of belonging to the Jewish people. In those spaces, a non-Jew might honor the rite by standing by.

I don't have this all figured out, not even close. In a mosque with my Muslim friend, should I stand shoulder and go through all the motions of the prayers with her? Does this signify  belonging and/or believing? And to whom? What message might I be communicating?

When I think about stepping into another religious tradition, I want to stand by in respectful witness until I understand the job of a ritual for it's practitioners.If it is primarily to express and strengthen belonging for a community that is not my own or beliefs I do not share, I lovingly affirm their world by opting out. 

And I want to remember that, without the boundaries our Christian and Jewish ancestors guarded  around their beliefs and their belonging, we would not have these powerful rites and narratives to inspire our lives and enliven our winters.

That said, conversations about setting boundaries around belief and belonging appear to be of less and less interest to the younger generation. Intermarriage, post ethnicity, multiple identities have changed the belonging question and a postmodern sensibility casts the issue of belief in a new light.

Which brings us to behaving. The most generative conversations seem to happen when we share our practices for behaving, that is, exercising the spiritual muscles that that help us to show up as our best selves (or keep us from showing up as our worst.)

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Humanists can sit together without boundary crossing anxieties and share their practices for cultivation of character, teaching one another disciplines as varied as prayer/journaling, spiritual scripture reading, or chanting the names of God.

To the extent that elements of Christmas and Hanukkah carry meanings related to belonging and believing in particular contexts, I want to respect those boundaries in those contexts. And I want to recall what a commitment to belief and belonging has bequeathed us from the past. But to the extent that other elements can be seen as nurturing values and virtues to which we all aspire (the genius of the holiday of Kwanzaa), I am less interested in setting lines and more interested in sharing.


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