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. 

The Millennium: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

HJ Vol 27 No 4 Autumn 1999

Millennium fever is abroad. Some people are expecting the end of the world. Others are preparing for computer catastrophes. Still others are planning parties. Since socialism died, secular utopian visions for the next thousand years are hard to find. Of course, all of this anxiety is technically inappropriate. Since Jesus was most likely born in 4 B.C.E., the beginning of the millennium (as dated from his presumed birth) happened three years ago! 

Millennium time is an obvious time for prophecy. Secular prophets can be excused if they turn out to be fallible. There are so many variables to tangle with. The way to begin the process is to look at the amazing transformations of the past millennium. 

One thousand years ago, most of the planet’s people were subsistence farmers living in villages. The muslim world was at the peak of its power. Christian Europe was an economic backwater. Human minds and lives were centered on religion. Governments were princely and authoritarian. 

One thousand years later, the Muslim world is economically primitive. European culture dominates the world. Most people live in cities, not villages. The lifestyles of urban people are overwhelmingly secular. The political environment of most powerful nations is one of democracy and personal freedom. Our millennium has been unique. There is a radical discontinuity between its beginning and its end. 

For the Jews of the world, the past millennium has brought an equally radical transformation. One thousand years ago, most of the Jewish people lived in Muslim countries. Their lives were controlled by religious ritual and religious authority. External and internal governments were authoritarian and oppressive. One thousand years later, most Jews reside in nations of predominantly European culture, including a Jewish state. Their lifestyle has more to do with consumer choices than with divine commandments. Their political and economic environments offer emancipation, freedom, and prosperity. Their connection to their historic past is minimal. 

Never before in Jewish history has change been so dramatic. In the last two hundred years of this millennium, the interests and behavior of Jews have completely diverged from the traditions of the past. Synagogues and temples have become haves of nostalgia, where Jews can pretend to be traditional and to dent that they have radically changed. But the reality is too powerful to sustain the denial. A secular environment of personal freedom has no precedent in human history. At the end of this millennium has no precedent in human history. 

A free society, the gift of Anglo-Saxon Protestant politics, has undermined the walls of Jewish conformity. Today Jewish diversity is expanding. No single Jewish authority has the power to regulate Jewish life. Every Jew enjoys the privilege of choice. And the “menu” is almost infinite. Moses and Marx, Jeremiah and Freud, Akiba and Camus, gefilte fish and bacon, all are possible combinations on the buffet of freedom. Many Jews don yarmulkes at intermarriages. Some choices are rational and in good taste. Some choices are irrational and in bad taste. But no one seems to have the power to stop choosing. Of course, all this rapid change has produced high levels of guilt and anxiety. Many Jews are traumatized by freedom. Many want to go forward and backward at the same time. The rise of a militant Jewish fundamentalism is not a sign that change is reversing. It is a tribute to its success.  

So what are the prospects for the next millennium? Will the technological transformation of the industrial world render nationalism obsolete and break down the ethnic and religious barriers that have divided humanity? Will communication and transportation be so swift that the “global village” becomes real? Under today’s circumstances it is difficult to predict events beyond the next one hundred years. Empirical prophets are restrained by insufficient evidence. Nevertheless, it is clear that the beginning of the next millennium will continue the radical transformation of the Jew.  

What can we expect? 

Prosperity, leisure, and secular education will continue to make the Jew more secular. The secular goods of the market economy and the consumer culture have become more attractive than the offerings of traditional religion. 

Israel will continue to exist. A global economy will utilize its buying power and make it prosperous. The gradual secularization of the Arab and Muslim worlds will enable Israel to find allies, if not friends, in the Near East. 

Jewish life will grow more chaotic through diversity. Atheists, mystics, and Jesus-freaks all will be a part of it. In Israel, peace will bestow new power on the secular minority. New Age religion will share the marketplace with Orthodoxy. 

The dichotomy between ultra-Orthodox and secularized Jews will grow wider. As a protest against the modern world, ultra-Orthodoxy will continue to recruit many Jews who find the stresses of contemporary urban society intolerable. Living in their islands of segregation, traditional Jews will feel increasingly alienated from the rest of the Jewish community. 

Intermarriage will remain a significant part of Jewish life. Even in Israel, marriages between Jews and Arabs will flow from the freedom of an open society. Anti-Semitism will persist as a chronic annoyance. Since its foundations lie in the discomfort of millions of people with the stresses of a modern capitalist and urban culture and the perceived dominant role of Jews in that culture, its locus will continue to lie chiefly among the poor and lower classes. 

In the Diaspora, assimilation and intermarriage will de-ethnicize the Jewish people. After several generations, the stereotypes of Ashkenazic Jews will vanish. Jewish identity will be primarily a matter of choice. In the Jewish state, a new ethnicity will emerge out of the mixing of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews. In both places the Jewish profile will become radically different. 

Higher birthrates in Israel will reverse the current population edge of the Diaspora. By 2050 the Zionist dream will be realized: the majority of the Jews in the world will reside in Israel. Israel will continue to play a greater and greater role in Jewish life, even for the de-ethnicized Jews of the Diaspora. 

American Jewry will shrink in size through low birth rates and attrition. But many non-Jews will choose a version of Jewish identity. A fascination with the achievements of Jews will continue to recruit adherents from the middle and upper classes. 

Humanistic Judaism will continue to grow and to become more respectable. Secular Jews will be attracted to Humanistic Judaism if the movement is both strong and visible. Reform and Conservative Jews will keep shifting between traditional and liberal initiatives in order to deal with their diverse and amorphous constituencies. Internal disputes may fragment both movements. 

Relentless change will be the order of the day. The technology of the next millennium will continue to generate both power and anxiety. More than theology, it will determine the future of Jewish life and of Judaism. 

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. 

The Voice of Reason

Humanistic Judaism, Spring, 1991

The Arkansas state legislature has passed a bill requiring science teachers to give as much time to the Genesis story of creation as a gift to the Darwinian story of evolution.

A California judge just recently declared the teachers and the California public schools must acknowledge the evolution is only a theory and not a fact.

Paul Laxalt, a conservative senator from Nevada, has co-sponsored a bill in Congress, which is called a Family Protection Act and what to remove the issues of abortion and teacher qualification from the jurisdiction of the higher courts.

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves

Committees of the Christian fundamentalists in southern Texas organizing to remove the pornographic writings of Salenger and Hemingway from the shelves of public library’s.

Mark Siljander, and Michigan Republican primary candidate actually backed by the Moral Majority, recently want to surprise victory against seemingly overwhelming odds.

A letter arrives to my office address to ‘you humanist bastard’.The anonymous author proclaims, ‘The Age of the Enlightenment is dead. The Age of Faith is reborn’.

Is the age of enlightenment really dying?

Well, if it were up to the Moral Majority and to its allies in the New Right, it’s certainly would be. The advocates of political Christian fundamentalism are determined to reverse the course of 200 years of American history and to turn our country into a Puritan version of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran.

The ideas and the ideals of the Enlightenment are now under attack. The Age of Reason is now on the defensive. The belief in an orderly world governed by natural law, the valuing of reason is the best method for the discovery of truth, the ability to live with uncertainty and the tentativeness of judgments, the eagerness to welcome new ideas, and maximizing of individual freedom and personal options, the assumption that good citizenship as possible without denominational religion—all these affirmations of the enlightenment are now being assaulted by voices of reaction.

The voice of reason is being drowned out by the voice of Fanaticism.

Who is this voice of Fanaticism?

The list is long. There is…

The Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell

The Christian Voice of Jerry Jarmon

The Religious Roundtable of Ed McAteer

The Committee for the Survival of the Free Congress of Paul Weyrich

The Christian Crusade of Billy Joe Hargis

The Stop ERA of Phyllis Schlafly

The Conservatives Caucus of Howard Phillips

What do they want? They want. Period.

The National Conservative Political Action Committee of Tim Dolan

The Conservative Digestive Richard Viguerie

And the remnants of the John Birch Society

As well as many others.

To put prayers in the public school;

To insinuate Bible stories into public science classrooms;

To censor classic literature they deem morally offensive;

To undermine our judicial system a state secular education;

To use public money to support denominational religion;

To ban sex education;

To limit sexual freedom;

To defeat the ERA universe the hard-won gains of female liberation;

To ban abortions;

To revive political witch hunts in the name of anti-communism;

To secure a political power to make the changes they desire.

How are they going about getting what they want?

They have developed a simple message that everyone can understand. Unlike the complex answers of liberal intellectuals, their analysis of the causes of crime, poverty, and family decline can be reduced to a simple observation. Turning away from God and the Bible is responsible for moral decay. It, therefore, logically follows that, if we turn back to God in the Bible, all will be well.

They have infiltrated political parties. They are encouraging their members to become active Republicans and Democrats. They have already taken over the Republican Party in Alaska and are aiming for broader victories.

They pushed through members to go out and vote for the candidate they have chosen–or, in many cases, vote against the political figures they have targeted. Church of Idaho, McGovern of South Dakota, Bayh of Indiana and many others were victims of their effective campaign.

They have mastered the media. Ironically, the technology which the spirit assigned to sponsors of them better than it serves defenders of science. They understand the power of radio and television to indoctrinate the masses and to mobilize them for social action. Fundamentalist station channels are proliferating. Millions of dollars are pouring in weekly from enthusiastic audiences. The political fundamentalists have entered the home of every American with their electronic campaign.

Alliances with formally angry opponents. Hostility to the public school system, the advocacy to parochial education and hatred of abortion unite them with conservative Catholics. The salvation style of fundamentalist Christianity makes them appealing to native Blacks. The Bible approach to the importance of the state of Israel into the Begin government claim to the West Bank and Gaza gives them support in the Jewish community. They have cleverly decided to woo their old enemies.

They have encountered very little organized opposition. The tendency of many liberals and moderates to regard them as funny fanatics who will ultimately fade away serves them well. The smugness of the academic and intellectual communities make it easy for them to succeed by default. Why are they here to begin with? Why is there a resurgence of political fundamentalism the national scale?

There are several important reasons.

They have always been around. But, they now have a new self-confidence. The decline of the North and the growing prosperity of the South has given them economic clout and greater self-esteem. After all, the heartland of fundamentalism is the South. And the South is no longer the depressed region which sponsored the ‘hillbilly’ mentality. Prosperity has created a new assertiveness and an eagerness to defend the ethnic religion.

The economic recession in most of America has frustrated millions of citizens. They are angry and troubled about their declining living standards and do not know how to deal with economic forces over which they seem to have no control. This is a good beginning for religious fervor and paranoia.

Spreading problems of crime and family decline terrified money people. Liberal clichés about personal freedom do not deal with the real question. Concern for personal safety and the welfare of children is a valid concern. The fundamentalists have a silly solution to the problem. But, at least, they’re trying to answer the question.

Most people understand how to use technology. But, do not understand the spirit of free inquiry which makes the development of technology possible. Or educational system has produced technologists. But, it has not developed the mentality of true science. We are not living in an age of science. We are still living in an age of superstition, where irrational people have access to technology.

So what can we do? How could we, as defenders of reason and free inquiry, respond to their provocation?

We can take the problem seriously. Given their determination, economic power and mass appeal, the forces of the New Right and their social agenda will not easily sleep it away.

We can organize. We can band together to become a public Voice of Reason to counter the propaganda and political activity of the political fundamentalists.

What would be the message of the voice of reason?

It would be positive. It will not allow the New Right to put us in the position of always being against. It would state very clearly that we are for three traditional American values–free inquiry —having good citizenship in a secular state—community peace and harmony—with the consequent need to avoid imposing controversial moral values on everybody.

It would be patriotic. It would not permit the opposition to claim Americanism. It would demonstrate that the founding fathers were disciples of the Enlightenment –not pious religionists. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin resisted the Moral Majority of their day to lay the foundations of a secular state.

It would be moral. It would not simply defend negative freedom and turn over all the ethical vocabulary to the moralists on the right. It will declare that teaching values is an important part of public education. After all, reliability, honesty, cooperation, sharing, and self-control are part of good citizenship. They are necessary, non-controversial discipline n in a secular state. While denominational religion can reinforce these values, they can also be derived from reason and common sense. In a land of competing religions, the shared reasonable approach is the only feasible way to teach social discipline and to preserve community peace.

It would be sensitive. It would acknowledge the worries that many poor and middle-income Americans have about crime, child pornography, and family decline. It would be concerned with pragmatic responses to these issues.

It would be non-partisan. Many Republicans, as well as Democrats, fear the Moral Majority and its attempts to take over the machinery of the political parties. The Voice of Reason would not identify with the liberal economic agenda. It would recognize that both economic liberals and economic conservatives are in favor of the secular state and free inquiry.

How was the Voice of Reason go about spreading this message?

It would establish a national organization.

It would secure the endorsement of prominent ‘stars’ in the natural and social sciences, as well as the backing of public figures.

It would produce materials for public distribution.

It would create media programs for radio and television.

It would hold public meetings and rallies to generate publicity and create a sense of group solidarity.

It would train citizens to be the effective voices of reason and to answer the distortion of the New Right.

It would issue position papers to evaluate proposed legislation.

It would monitor the behavior of Congress and state legislators and support targeted candidates, whether Republican or Democratic.

It would solicit money to make this campaign possible.

Right now, the Voice of Reason is more than a ‘would’. It is an ‘is’. Last December, a national organization called the Voice of Reason was established in Michigan and Illinois. Its founding committee came from both the Society for humanistic Judaism and from other concern groups.

The voice of reason is growing. It is reaching out to many other states. It needs your help and support.

The Message of Jesus: The Continuing Controversy

Recorded in 2006 by the Center for New Thinking.

The discovery of ‘other’ gospels at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945 has traumatized the world of Christian scholarship. The Jesus of these gospels is very different from the Jesus of the gospels in the New Testament. His message in the ‘other’ stories is vastly different. A message of enlightenment is not the same as a message of salvation. The problem was aggravated by the recent debut of the Gospel of Judas, which transforms Judas Iscariot from a villain into a hero. Can these two messages be reconciled. If not, which one is the real one?

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

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.