Gibson’s Bad News for the Jews: The Passion of the Christ a film by Mel Gibson, Review

Colloquium 2003: Spring 2004

The most famous Jew who ever lived is a problem for Jews. His name was Jesus, and he became the central figure of the world’s most successful religion. Today more than two billion people — one-third of the human race — proclaim themselves to be Christians.

The Christian Church persecuted Jews for more than fifteen centuries. Christian leaders accused Jews of being Christ-killers. They slaughtered them in pogroms. In the Jewish mind, Jesus and antisemitism go together. We cannot even talk about him in our services and Sunday Schools. He belongs to the “en­emy.” For a Jew to become a Christian is an act of treason.

The only ancient stories we have about Jesus are Christian stories. There are no reports from contemporary Greek or Roman histories. The official Christian story of his life and death dates from the fourth century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This official story is contained in four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and in two creeds, Athanasian and Nicene. In this narrative there are five major events: Jesus’ virgin birth during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, his four-year preaching career, his passion and crucifixion at the age of thirty-three, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension to heaven after forty days on earth. This official story was re­inforced by punishment for those who devi­ated from it.

Throughout the ensuing centuries, the Western Church (the Roman Catholic Church), in particular, focused on the details of the Crucifixion and demonized Jews as Christ- killers. In the Middle Ages, passion plays were created, which retold the New Testament story with gory embellishments and depicted the Jew as the agent of the Devil.

The antisemitism of the Catholic Church was alleviated in the past three centuries by the arrival of the secular revolutions that transformed modern society: capitalism, sci­ence, and democracy. The Church was de­prived of its temporal power. Modern schol­ars wrote new versions of the Jesus epic, in which the role of the Jews was downplayed and the message of love became the central theme. When antisemitism reasserted itself in the twentieth century, the guilt engendered by the Holocaust produced the apologies of the Church after Vatican Council II.

When the cinema arrived on the scene, with all its power to influence public opin­ion, film versions of the story of Jesus, from De Mille’s King of Kings to George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told, were relatively benign. In later years, Jewish Hollywood reversed the roles. The “crucifixion” of the Jews, as embodied in the Holocaust, now became a continual theme. Jews were the victims; Chris­tians were the cruel murderers.

Mel Gibson’s new movie about Jesus de­fies all this “positive” development. It is an old-time Catholic passion play on film, with its gory sadism and its powerful antisemitism. It is as though Gibson wanted to cancel out the “Holocaust syndrome” and to restore the time when Christians felt perfectly free to portray Jews as villains, without guilt. After all, Gibson and his father belong to a seces­sionist group of Catholics who disapprove of the liberal reforms of Vatican II and wish to restore Catholicism to its former orthodoxy. Some of these secessionists, including Gibson’s father, deny the Holocaust.

The film is a powerful cinema experience. Jews cannot appreciate it because they are turned off by its obvious antisemitism. Liberals cannot appreciate it because they cannot identify with the virtue of suffering. All they can talk about is the excessive and intolerable gore. Liberal Christians cannot appreciate it because they have “converted” to the Jesus of the Enlightenment, whose main achievement is not the atonement for sin or the conquest of death but the message of love.

But for conservative Christians this film is a triumph. It recaptures the central message of traditional Christianity: Jesus Christ suffered and died for our sins. His chief enemy is the Devil, who seduces humanity to defy God. Two powerful emotions are aroused by this movie. The first is guilt — the guilt the believer feels for his own sins and for the suffering of Jesus, who takes on himself the punishment that the believer deserves. The second is rage — rage against the cruelty of the Devil and against the sinners who embraced his cause. All their noses are crooked and Semitic. Only one Jew­ish nose in the film is straight.

The film is bad news for the Jews. Although inspired by Catholic fervor, it will become a cult film with the Protestant Religious Right, the lovers of Sharon’s Israel. (Will wonders never cease!) It will be embraced by enthusi­asts in Europe and by the anti-Jewish public of the Muslim world (even though official Islam does not accept the crucifixion of Jesus).

The good news is that Western Europe is so secularized that Disney is doing better than Gibson. And, in North America, skepticism and nonconformity are so widespread that The Da Vinci Code remains a bestseller — a book with the thesis that Jesus may never have been crucified, but instead got married and had a child. An America that is willing to entertain such an idea is very far from the mindset of The Passion of the Christ.

RESPONSA – Messianic Jews

1992 Conference Highlights, Spring 1993

Question: What is Humanistic Judaism’s position regarding Messianic Jews? Are they Jewish? If so, how are they distin­guishable from Gentile Christians?

Responsum: Few issues in Jewish life arouse Jewish emotion more than the pros­elytizing activity of Jews for Jesus. After centuries of Christian persecution and op­pression, which left powerful memories of aggressive missionary activity and forced conversions, our view of Jewish converts to Christianity (as Messianic Jews are often regarded) tends to be less than friendly. Many Jews see them as traitors and turn­coats, betrayers of our people, consorters with our historic enemies, unconscionable subverters of Jewish survival in the century of the Holocaust.

Almost universally, Jewish organiza­tions refuse Jewish status to Messianic Jews. The Israeli Supreme Court, in a recent, much-publicized decision, denied them the status of Jews, a decision that runs counter to the principles of both Orthodoxy and Zionism. Rabbinic Judaism maintains that the children of Jewish moth­ers are Jews, regardless of their religious beliefs; Jewish identity is ethnic and “eter­nal.” Zionism maintains that Jewish iden­tity is national, not religious; even athe­ists, practitioners of yoga, and believers in reincarnation and astrology are Jews so long as they identify with and participate in Jewish national aspirations. (Ironically, Messianic Jews, who are rejected as Jews, have a stronger belief in the validity and authority of the Torah and theological Judaism than do secularists who are ac­cepted as Jews.) The decision to reject Messianic Jews is not a matter of principle. It is an act of anger and spite. Once belief is ruled out as the criterion of Jewishness, then singling out messianic beliefs as a sign of non- Jewishness is invalid.

The criterion for Jewish identity (as established by the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews in Brussels in 1988) is the willingness to identify with the history, culture and fate of the Jewish people. Messianic Jews identify with that history, practice that culture, and accept the burdens of the Jewish fate. Why should people who actively desire to identify with the history, fate, and culture of the Jewish people be rejected as Jews when the most wild-eyed, New Age hippie with minimal interest in Jewishness retains Jewish iden­tity?

From a Humanistic Jewish point of view, believing that Jesus is the Messiah is no more offensive than believing that the Lubavitcher rebbe is the Messiah. If we are not prepared to exclude “errant” Lubavitchers, then why exclude “errant” believers in Jesus? We, as Humanistic Jews, would prefer that Jews be rational and nonmessianic. But, if they choose to be messianic, we are not going to engage in the absurd game of choosing “kosher” messiahs over “non-kosher” messiahs. Rabbi Akiba believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. Did Akiba thereby cease to be a Jew? Thousands of Jews in the seven­teenth century believed that Shabbatai Zevi was the Messiah. Did they, too, stop being Jews? Why pick on Jesus? After all, we cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot claim at interfaith banquets that Jesus was a Jew and simultaneously deny the Jewish identity of born Jews who want to be Jews and who choose Jesus as their savior.

From a Humanistic Jewish perspective, all messiahs are ridiculous. But being ri­diculous does not disqualify a person from being a Jew. Judaism is a pluralistic civili­zation. It can accommodate theists and atheists, mystics and rationalists, halakhists and individualists, devotees of the rebbe as well as devotees of Jesus. Messianic Jews are Jews, even if their belief system may be offensive to us. They are entitled to the privileges of Jews under the Law of Return. They are entitled to participate in the deliberations of Jewish communal bodies so long as they are not seeking to prosely­tize.

Gentile Christians are not interested in Jewish identity. They are not interested in celebrating Jewish holidays, even from a messianic point of view. They are not interested in participating in Jewish cul­ture or in identifying with the Jewish historical experience. Gentile Christians participate only in Christian culture. Mes­sianic Jews have chosen to participate in Jewish culture as their primary culture.

Messianic Jews are very far from Hu­manistic Jews in their belief system. But, like the Lubavitchers (who are almost equally as distant) they share with us a commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.

The Rabbi Writes – The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1994, Vol. XXXI, Number 3 

A doctor performing abortions is killed in Florida. A full-page advertisement in the Sunday New York Times accuses Bill Clinton of arranging the murder of his good friend and assistant Vincent Foster. Irangate villain Oliver North wins the Republican primary for the United States Senate seat from Virginia and proposes to restore Christian values in America.      

Together with thousands of other events these three provocations are evidence of the continuing presence and power of the Religious Right. Emerging in 1980 during the first Reagan campaign, as a major political force, the Religious Right is still alive and well and determined to win the victory that has so far eluded them. Their leaders are by now familiar – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Donald Wildman, Paul Wyrich. The Moral Majority may have yielded to the Christian Coalition. But the agenda remains the same. 

The agenda is very clear and very frightening. It is the use of government power to impose a Christian fundamentalist moral code of behavior on all the American people. Before 1980 the fundamentalists shunned national politics. Now they are the masters of it. Although they represent only 15-20% of the American public they act as though they are the voice of America and of American values. 

The Religious Right has its roots in the traditional conservative movement. Traditional conservatives are different from economic conservatives. Economic conservatives liked to be called liberals in the nineteenth century. They opposed the government control of private life and championed the right of individuals to personal and economic freedom. When they first emerged they were on the Left. Only the movement of many classical liberals to egalitarian and socialist ideas turned them into “conservatives.” Economic conservatives do not want to use the government. They want to avoid the government. 

Traditional conservatives are the real conservatives. They come out of the agricultural world that preceded capitalism. Their role model for the organization of society is the authoritarian family. The government is like a good father, guiding and protecting his children. Good fathers make demands, impose discipline and control behavior. Religion features an authoritarian God who behaves in the same way and who is a reflection of what good fathers and good governments do. The primary role of society is reproduction. Therefore abortion and homosexuality are forbidden. And the basic role of women is to have babies and to serve their husbands. 

Although capitalism and personal freedom have been around for a long time in America, there are many Americans who still belong to or yearn to return to this old conservative world. Their numbers have increased in recent years because American life has been traumatized by family decline, lifestyle change, economic uncertainty and crime. Traditional conservatives have placed the responsibility for these changes on the doorstep of unbridled freedom and its ally secular humanism. 

If the Religious Right were to achieve political power in America, they would put prayers, Bible readings and Bible theology into the public schools. They would use tax money to pay for private religious education. They would censor books and newspapers. They would outlaw abortion and homosexuality. They would pass laws to encourage women to bear children and to stay at home. 

For many years traditional conservatives were too divided to be effective. White fundamentalists hated Black fundamentalists. Charismatics hated fundamentalists. Protestants hated Catholics. All of them hated Jews. Many conservative Protestants were in favor of the separation of religion and government because they did not want state money going to Catholic parochial schools. But all of that has changed. The civil rights movement has ironically brought White and Black fundamentalists together. Communism and abortion have sealed the union between conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics. And the growing number of Jewish fundamentalists has bizarrely recruited Jewish allies for a Christian America. What was divided is now united against their shared enemy – a free society. 

The strategy of the Religious Right is to take over the Republican Party. Since they are a distinct minority, they cannot win power unless they hang onto the coattails of a major political institution. Unfortunately, they have been very successful in their campaign. Hundreds of Republican precincts have fallen under their control. Hundreds of their devotees have been nominated as Republican candidates. The 1992 Republican Convention was dominated by their agenda and by their ideology. Most Republican leaders are afraid of them and seek their approval and support. 

The consequence is the vicious assault on Bill Clinton. Clinton has many faults. But he is not a sex maniac and murderer. But hundreds of thousands of Americans now believe that he is. They do not read the liberal press. They listen to the tapes circulated by Robertson and Falwell which give credibility to these accusations. 

The campaign by the Religious Right ought to frighten us into action. We, as humanists, are, in their eyes, the ultimate enemy. But, in offering resistance, we need to keep in mind certain basic realities. 

The first basic reality is that most Republicans are economic conservatives, not traditional conservatives. The only way to fight the Religious Right is to mobilize the Republican (sic) who also hate them. Economic freedom goes together with personal freedom and with the separation of religion from government. Rational Republicans know that. 

The second basic reality is that morality is a stronger argument than a peevish defense of personal choice. The Religious Right derives its power from its presentation of itself as the defender of ethics and morality. If, indeed, their point of view is the moral one, they have the moral authority to impose their will on us. The way to fight the Religious Right is to take the moral monopoly away from the (sic). Abortion freedom is not merely personal choice. It is the moral choice in an overcrowded world as Society of wanted babies is the only society that is morally sustainable. Abortion freedom is not merely personal choice.It is the moral choice. In an overcrowded world a society of wanted babies is the only society that is morally sustainable. Abortion freedom is not simply an individual right. It is, above all, a social and ethical necessity.  

The Religious Right will be a chronic and continuous political force in American life. We have to be on the alert to resist them. When we offer our resistance, we must remember that many people who call themselves conservatives are our national allies – and that the defense of individual freedom is also the defense of social morality.  

The Rabbi Writes: The Religious Right

The Jewish Humanist, October 1996, Vol. XXXIII, Number 3

The Religious Right 

Today in America there is a powerful mobilized voter constituency which is called the Religious Right.  Their most aggressive political organization is the Christian Coalition.  And their new and most visible leader is Ralph Reed.  In San Diego they took over the Republican Party platform. 

The Religious Right has its roots in the agricultural past, which is the foundation of traditional conservatism.  Before capitalism and urbanization most people were peasants and farmers, living in small villages.  The fundamental social unit was the extended family.  In that world bearing children was the easiest way to provide a cheap and obedient labor force.  Women obeyed their husbands.  Children obeyed and revered their parents.  Female significance lay in the raising of offspring.  Since the struggle for survival was harsh, pain and suffering were accepted as part of normal living.  The answer to suffering lay in religion which promised happiness after death. 

The ruling class of this milieu consisted of warriors and clergy.  Soldiers and priests were the familiar authority figures.  Honor and morality were identified with their virtues.  Money, commerce, and merchants were viewed with hostility.  They were too unfamiliar and thiswordly (sic) to be fully acceptable.  The source of ethical living lay in farms and small towns.  Reverence for the land and God was the pillar of the social order. 

When the industrial and capitalist revolutions came, the social upheavals produced an opposition to the tight control of family, church, and military government. These people were called “liberals” because they wanted to substitute personal freedom for social control.  The traditional people who wanted to preserve the old order were appropriately called “conservatives.”  In time the problems of capitalism produced an even more radical opposition.  These radicals sometimes chose to call themselves “socialists.” 

The liberals of the nineteenth century fought the social conservatives.  They wanted freedom from tradition, family control, and government.  They proposed the alternative of the autonomous individual and individual rights.  Every person had the right to choose his work, his residence, his religion, and his lifestyle.  Free speech, free assembly, and free enterprise supported these rights.  The “classic liberal” was no conservative.  What he was proposing was a radical departure from tradition.  Today, when free enterprise appears “traditional,” many defenders of laissez-faire capitalism call themselves “conservative.”  It is very important to make a distinction between “economic conservatives” who champion individual freedom and the genuine conservatives who champion social control. 

Social conservatism thrives on patriotism.  After all, the clan, the tribe, and the ethnic nation are simply extensions of the traditional family.  Loyalty to them has deep roots in the old world of agriculture.  Modern capitalism, like the big mixed cities it produces, tends to be international.  The consumer culture knows no boundaries.  In its mind choice should be as broad as possible.  Ironically, capitalism fostered nationalism because it needed the resources of a strong state and because it sponsored literacy in native languages.  But extreme nationalism is inimical to the spirit of free enterprise. 

Pat Buchanan is a powerful example of the conflict between chauvinism and free enterprise.  His strident opposition to free trade in the name of American patriotism rests ultimately on the parochial value of a tribal system.  Strangers are to be feared and excluded.  No foreign goods and no immigrants are the slogans of the Traditional Right. 

Buchanan’s constituency is not the upper classes.  It is the working class and the lower middle class who “tune in” to his message.  These people are only one, two, or three generations away from the farm.  They confront uncertain employment, disintegrating families, and violent cities.  The standard of living to which they had grown accustomed is “up for grabs.”  Capitalism and urban life are not as kind to them as they are to the professional classes.  Scapegoats for their misery are attractive.  Populist leaders like Huey Long, Charles Coughlin, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan know how to cultivate the paranoia of ruthless enemies. 

Social conservatism feeds on peasant and farmer nostalgia for small towns, tight families, group conformity, patriotic sacrifice, ancestral religion, and dangerous outsiders.  The dilemma of traditionalists is that the world they want is a function of an agricultural society of scarcity.  In order to return to it, they would have to forgo the lifestyle of the consumer culture.  For most of them, that is a price they are not prepared to pay. 

The Religious Right is a response to the discomforts, dislocations, violence, and uncertainty of modern urban culture.  In the  Muslim world it attacks capitalism, the consumer culture, and the freedom which stems from both of them.  In America such a strategy is not feasible.  Conservative anxieties avoid the basic economic anxieties: (with the exception of Buchanan) and focus on the lifestyle that a free consumer culture of choice cllows.  Abortion, hoosexuality, pornography, and feminism become the enemies.  All of them are seen as the manifestations of a sinister secularism.  Only  a return to the old religion and the values it sponsored will push back this secular tide. 

The part of America with the closest time connection to rural life and with the highest percentage of native Anglosaxons is the center of the Religious Right.  The South is the natural home of this political movement.  The money and “troops” of the fundamentalists come from all over America but are essentially Southern.  Churches of Southern origin are the mobilizers of the “faithful.” 

The aim of the Religious Right is political power.  While they cannot bring back the old values without blowing up the present economic system, they can create repression, turn patriotism into dangerous chauvinism, and undermine the integrity of our scientific institutions.  To say the least, they are dangerous. 

Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition are determined to control the machinery of the Republican Party.  Historically, the Republicans were the party that promoted industrialization, urbanization, and immigration There were much closer to classical liberals than they were to social conservatives.  Their Eastern establishment sponsored both liberal religion and planned parenthood.  Moreover, they were overwhelmingly Northern.  It is ironic that the “last cry” of Southern rural America has now become a controlling force in this Yankee reaction.  The base of both the Religious Right and the Republicans is now the South. 

School prayer will not bring back the old values, nor will it reverse the surge of the new individualism.  Social discipline and social responsibility demand a new values strategy for realists.  What is especially annoying about the Religious Right is their ideological bankruptcy.  They want to “have their cake and eat it.”  They want the comforts of urban capitalism together with all the asceticism of the old farm. 

Only the Republicans can give the Religious Right the power they want.  We must make sure that they do not. 

Confronting the Religious Right

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 23, No 3-4 Summer_Autumn 1995

Confronting the Religious Right 

Because of the Religious Right, political decisions in America have become ethical issues. Preserving the separation of religion and government is a moral challenge of supreme importance. 

The power of the Religious Right rests on a variety of developments. Charismatic leaders, money, media exposure, the exploitation of available church audiences, the vulnerability of the Republican Party — all these factors are important to the rise of the political fundamentalists. But the most important foundation is the growing concern of millions of Americans with the moral decline of America. Selfishness, rudeness, “flakiness,” disrespect for all authority, and the incessant demand for instant gratification are more visible than ever before. The Religious Right claims that a return to religion, especially in our public schools, will cure this “disease.” 

Even though the cure is an illusion, the “disease” is real. There is a values crisis in America. Something has to be done to deal with it. And the great danger is that we will turn the problem over to “quack doctors” who will do more harm than good. 

Opposing prayer in the public schools, fighting government vouchers for parochial schools, removing Bible readings from state-run classrooms — all of these efforts will fail if we do not address the values issue. 

A negative strategy, a strategy that simply says no, will not work. Only a positive strategy, a proposal that seeks to confront values anxiety with values education, has any real chance for success. It is not enough to romanticize the historic importance of the separation of church and state. We must also have some alternative answer to the need to teach values to our children. 

“Politically correct” liberals often claim that values are too subjective and too controversial to be taught in the public schools. Only the home and the church can appropriately handle them. But what if the home and the church are not able to do what the community expects from them? What if millions of children have no exposure to a decent home or to an effective church? Are there no shared values that a public school can transmit? Is morality only a matter of sex education, feminism, and abortion? 

The historic public school in America taught values. It was called “good citizenship.” Many of us grew up with a report card that evaluated our self-control, reliability, and cooperation. Our teachers saw themselves not only as information dispensers, but also as moral disciplinarians. While their techniques would now be regarded as too harsh and too authoritarian, their message was appropriate. Education is not only about personal development and personal rights; it is also about living in a community. 

Many public school teachers are still trying to teach citizenship values, either through personal example or by direct instruction. But they are often afraid, in the present environment of the fundamentalist right and the multicultural left, to say so. They are intimidated into claiming that they are teaching no values at all.  

Such a strategy feeds into the political agenda of the Religious Right. This reticence enables them to condemn “valueless” education and to push for prayer in the public schools. Only the refusal to be reticent, only the willingness to resist the pressures from the right and the left, only the courage to advocate values education in the state schools, will provide a workable counterforce to fundamentalist pressure. 

The premises of such a values education have been with us for a long time. Here they are: 

  1. The Founding Fathers of this nation, together with thousands of other historic figures — male and female, black and white — are appropriate ethical role models for our children. 
  1. There are certain moral values that are shared by almost all Americans, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu, religious or nonreligious. Values like fairness, responsibility, reliability, compassion, cooperation, and the postponement of gratification are universal. They are important and noncontroversial. 
  1. Ethical values can be taught in both a religious and a nonreligious way. One way is to attach the value to the command of God. The other way is to connect the value to the consequences of behavior. Keeping promises can be important because God wants us to keep promises. It also can be important because society will fall apart if nobody can trust or believe anybody else. Teaching values in a secular way does not negate the possibility of teaching values in a religious way. But it is possible to present them in a nonreligious way, which does not violate the religious beliefs of the students. 
  1. Citizenship values do not have to be taught in a separate class. They need to be integrated into the discussion of every subject and into every classroom situation. An effective teacher, regardless of academic discipline, knows how to teach values. 

These four premises are the foundation of a positive strategy for confronting the Religious Right. Perhaps what we need in the public schools is not to begin the day with prayer, but to hear and see ethical quotations from great Americans. With a quotation, at least you can have a discussion. 

Jews and Christmas

The Jewish Humanist, December 1976

A local Reform rabbi recently described to me his act of heroism and integrity. Invited last December to a family dinner at the home of a wealthy temple member, he was astounded to find, in the middle of the den, a small Christmas tree festively decorated. Although, as he clearly pointed out, his host was a large contributor to the building fund, m former vice-president of his congregation, and a Jewish community leader of immense power, the rabbi refused the holiday egg-nog and, in the presence of amazed witnesses, proceeded to denounce “this tasteless sham.” He reminded his host that fawning assimilation was no vehicle to Jewish self-esteem and excoriated him for having- failed to set a proper example as a leader. The next day his embarrassed member indignantly resigned and withdrew his financial support. Despite congregational pressure to make the rabbi recant and apologize my friend bravely refused to comply. “I will not sell my integrity for money,” he announced.

A cousin of mine confided in me last year that her neighbor, whom she had always regarded as intelligent and sensitive, had sent her a Christmas card. Although the card contained only some, innocuous poetry about the winter season, my cousin was deeply troubled by this religious boorishness. After all, Hanukkah greetings are easily available. It would have been so nice to have her Jewishness acknowledged in the same way that she took great pains to respect the “Christian” character of her neighbor’s home. (Of course, her neighbors never went to church and despised all of organized religion. But Christmas as Christmas is not Hanukkah.)

Several winters ago one of my Sunday School teachers chastised me for having referred to the annual winter recess in the presence of the children, as Christmas vacation. She protested that Jewish students are always assaulted by the barrage of Christian propaganda through the mass media and the programs of the public school. – The Temple, of all places, should be the one haven where the individuality of their own tradition is affirmed. “Christian vocabulary,” she asserted, “has no place in a Jewish school. We ought to make our children proud of their own holidays.”

These three incidents reveal a fundamental sociological truth. Christmas is a problem for most American Jews. In a culture where Jews are rapidly becoming an assimilated minority, this holiday season is never for us what it is for our Gentile friends – a time of family reunion and community goodwill. It is usually a season of guilty anxiety when our Jewish loyalty and commitment are publicly tested. Christmas decorations confront the Jewish parent, not as objects of beauty, but as devilish enticements, too seductive for the Jewish good. If only Christmas carols were not such lovely musical threats. If only Christmas trees could be uglier. It takes immense strength to resist such pleasant temptations, and we are bound to resent what is so delectable but forbidden.

Rabbis used to express their ritual concerns by denouncing violations of dietary laws and Sabbath rest. But in a milieu where dietary laws are for caterers and Sabbath observance is an activity of grandparents, the Christmas tree is the new -bite noir. Reform rabbis who have long since abandoned any form of Jewish ritual discipline and who eloquently announced the priority of ethics over ceremonial trivia, reveal a righteous indignation about the Jewish observance of Christmas that even civil rights, Vietnam, and a nuclear holocaust could never evoke. The Christian “enemy” must be resisted at all costs, even at the price of glorifying the ordinary. The deification of Hanukkah is a tribute to our fears. A minor winter festival, with its roots in a pagan fascination with lights and with its historical justification tied to a shabby battle between two kinds of religious fanatics, has been elevated in America to the highest of ritual heights. Yom Kippur pales before its current splendor – Passover cannot touch its expenditures. As the Jewish answer to Christmas in a child-centered culture, it has wildly succeeded. It has become the annual badge of identity.

My rabbi friend, who preferred integrity to money, revealed in a recent temple bulletin the reasons why Jews should have nothing at all to do with Christmas. It is clear, he says, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, intimately tied to the story of Jesus’ virgin birth and ‘inevitably bound to the dogmatic beliefs of the historic Church. To celebrate Christmas is to symbolically affirm one’s identity with this tradition, as well as one’s agreement with its principles Christ is not separable from Christmas. In fact, Protestant and Catholic clergymen are valiantly resisting the efforts of the religiously indifferent and the crassly commercial to turn the occasion into a mere secular holiday of goodwill, devoid of any theological meaning. They want to “put Christ back into Christmas.” And we as Jews ought to respect their effort. We ought to help them in their struggle for religious purity by keeping our “unbelieving Jewish hands” off their sacred festival. We have our own holiday. We don’t need theirs.

In fact, the rabbi says, Jewish observance of Christmas only excites Christian contempt. Many obsequious early Reformers imagined that, if they imitated their Gentile neighbors and pretended to be less conspicuously Jewish, they would more readily win the social approval they desired. But just the opposite occurred. The more they imitated, the more they tried to affirm their identity with the majority culture, the less they achieved the respect and admiration they craved. Without authenticity they were contemptible beggars of community acceptance. The authentic Jew, who proudly affirmed his difference, was much more likely to be successful at finding approval.

The classic Reform indulgence of a Jewish Christmas, our bulletin writer suggests, was an expression of the immense self-hate that pervaded the psyche of an insecure and vulnerable minority. Self-respecting people are not afraid of difference and are not obsessed by the need for community acceptance. Christmas decorations in a Jewish home are pitiful, not so much because they violate religious requirements, but especially because they reveal the fear and self-contempt of their owners. Jewish dignity is always expressed in the willingness to assert Jewish identity under all conditions. Proud people do not hide behind, another person’s inheritance. They use their own.

It is certainly true, the rabbi maintains, that there are major religious differences between Judaism and Christianity. For Jews to celebrate Christian holidays, or for Christians to observe Jewish festivals, is to ignore these historic distinctions` and to treat religion lightly. The Jewish refusal to observe Christmas is an expression of, an ideological reality. To pretend to agree when .there is no agreement, to express unity when there is no unity, is to indulge futile gestures that feebly hide the truth. Honesty requires us to subscribe to no false brotherhood.’ We are honor bound to affirm our difference and the symbols of our difference.

Nor can we forget, the writer continues, the immense suffering our people have endured at the hands of official Christianity. Peace and goodwill may be the propaganda of Christmas; but they have nothing at all to do with the reality of Christian behavior toward Jews. The holidays of the Christian calendar are too intimately identified with the blood of our martyrs for us to practice them without guilt and hostility. We cannot erase the memories of two thousand years and reverse our conditioning. If we are sometimes angrily parochial, we are amply justified.

Perhaps. Yet the answers of our bulletin writer rest on a false assumption. It is assumed throughout his discussion that Jews have an option that they are free not to celebrate Christmas. But no option exists. All Jews in America must celebrate Christmas in some fashion or other. Since our whole American culture makes of this holiday a national festival, more Jews abstain from work on Christmas (through no choice of their own) than stay home for Rosh Hashana. All work stops; all business closes. Even Jewish families are forced to be together and to eat together. Some of our people celebrate the day with uncomfortable hostility, wasting its potential. Others relax in the pleasures of family reunion and hospitality, savoring its secular opportunities. Like the Sabbath in Israel, even nonbelievers have to observe it as a day of rest. If we are honest about the holiday question, we never ask: should American Jews celebrate Christmas. We rather inquire: how should American Jews celebrate Christmas (even if it means spending the whole day making invidious comparisons with Hanukkah or self-pityingly denouncing anti-Semitism).

Given the fact that Christmas is a holiday for Western Jews, however imposed, rabbis cannot close their eyes to its presence. Even Reconstructionists wax eloquent with programs for Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. But Christmas as a national day of leisure is conspicuously ignored. It is as though the experience is too painful to acknowledge or too embarrassing to admit. After all the protestations about the virtues of Hanukkah, no one takes off for Hanukkah, but Christmas ends up as our day of rest. Even the dullest child can see the power of that difference. One fact is clear. Hanukkah is no substitute for Christmas. First of all, it rarely ever falls on Christmas Day. And secondly, after one has finished with eight days of candles, dreidels, gifts, potato pancakes, and holiday-streamers, Hanukkah is a second-rate aesthetic experience next to its rival. As a winter festival for northern climates, Christmas with all its greenery, lights, and snowy songs is incomparable. Not even Judah Maccabee and his brave brothers can change that reality. (If only they had been a ski patrol and worshiped evergreens)

As long as we Jews have to celebrate Christmas, we might as well enjoy it. Instead of moping around with useless guilt and sour-grapes jealousy, we ought to make Christmas as comfortable for Jews as possible. In this regard the “religiously indifferent” and the “crass commercialists” are our allies. It is absolutely ludicrous and masochistic for Jews to attempt to reverse historical evolution and to “put Christ back into Christmas.” Why should we want to encourage a parochial mythology at the expense of a universal ethical message? Why should we allow stuffy and irrelevant clergymen to wreck Christmas? Is it not enough that the historic Church took-a perfectly charming Roman festival of the winter solstice and ruined it by identifying it with a myth about gods and mangers that had to be taken literally? Are we then to regret the death of the story? Ought we not to rejoice that young American children (despite their priests’ and ministers) prefer Jingle Bells to crèches? Japan has evolved a Christless Christmas which has become one of the major festivals of its calendar year. The Japanese have made of the holiday what they wanted to make of it – to serve their needs – without guilt or anguish.

Just as Christianity took the Roman “Christmas” and transformed-it to serve Christian needs; so can modern secularists use it to express humanistic needs. With millions of non-Christian Christmas observers in Russia, Japan and in Western Europe, and with the inevitable assault of the scientific age on all mythologies, our winter festival ought to inevitably evolve into an aesthetically charming holiday of international goodwill devoid of any serious theological implications. Of course, the Christian legend will linger indefinitely. But it will be on the defensive. A delicious irony will have evolved. Like Chinese food, the holiday will become more pleasurable for the tourists than for the natives. If such a procedure hardly seems “cricket”, the Christian traditionalists, given their past record of sympathy for others, richly deserve it.

Nor can the argument of Christian contempt be a telling one. Jews who observe a secular Christmas are no more contemptible to the hordes of Gentiles who are equally secular than Jews who •indulge Halloween, Valentine’s Day, or Thanksgiving. Christmas trees are no more religiously compromising than painted eggs for Easter. The charge of self-hate is equally absurd. On the contrary, the desperate attempt to avoid “contamination” with Christian symbols is the sign of self-doubt. It is no affirmation of self-esteem. Unwilling to forego the pleasures of assimilation, Jewish parents feebly protest their tribal loyalty every Hanukkah by the vehemence with which they resist Christmas. A self-confident Jew has no fear that a secular Christmas will destroy his identity. He is terrified by no ceremonial trivia and is afraid of no cosmopolitan experiment. As a Jewish humanist, free to demythologize whatever is aesthetically indispensable, he feels no need to be restrictive. He can celebrate and enjoy both Hanukkah and Christmas.

The either-or alternatives of distinct ideologies are quite irrelevant to the realities of contemporary religious belief. Educated Jews and Christians are much closer to each other in their humanistic dispositions than they are to the more traditional uneducated members of their respective denominations. Jewish and Christian belief on the university level are not very distinct. Hanukkah and Christmas emerge only as aesthetic options identified with childhood memory and family loyalty. To convert them into irreconcilable symbols is to distort the truth. It is to turn ideological molehills into ceremonial mountains.

Nor is Christian persecution a sufficient reason for the rejection of Christmas. If the holiday season had retained its historic theological significance, the reaction would be appropriate. But as the official winter festival of a secular Western culture, it survives primarily as a ceremonial opportunity for cozy goodwill. Despite the pleas of a vocal pious minority, its humanistic evolution is inevitable in the end it will turn out to be a repudiation of the very myth that sponsored it. It will slowly transfer its attention from the vocabulary of divine-grace to the reality of human love.

The Jewish hang-upon Christmas is a function of Jewish guilt. Ambivalent about assimilation and yet committed by his ambition to total integration, the modern American Jew finds it difficult to mediate between his past and future. His aggressiveness for Hanukkah and against Christmas is an expression of self-delusion. It helps sustain the fantasy that he has preserved the religious uniqueness he has long since abandoned. It makes him feel terribly Jewish without any real effort – and without any real insight.

A rational Jew accepts the fact that he celebrates Christmas. Since this ceremonial truth neither disturbs him nor frightens him, he desires to evaluate it fairly. He knows that, as a universal holiday Christmas has no peers. It transcends all national boundaries and unites millions of Christians and non-Christians in a worldwide celebration of goodwill. As a humanist, he is delighted by this development and works to make Christmas less Christian. As a Jew, he also celebrates and enjoys Hanukkah, but is wise enough to realize that it is no adequate substitute for its sister holiday. He does not view these festivals as mutually exclusive but sees then as complementary companions. If he is a parent, he will not deny his child either opportunity and has no objection to the celebration of a secular Christmas within the framework of his Sunday School, temple, or public school. He even welcomes humanistic procedures for Christmas as he welcomes then for Thanksgiving. In short, he is aware that he is more than Jewish, and accepting that “more” makes him feel a more effective and more understanding person.