I made a mistake

I had the feeling of déjà vu when reading about the controversy involving expunging “Merry Christmas” and substituing a pareve “Seasons Greetings”.

I once was zealous about taking Christmas out of the public domain. I now see this from a different perspective, having become observant and lived in religious communities for several decades, and recant my former earlier “crusade” to remove religion from public schools.

In 1963 was president of my senior class at Lawrence High School in New York, a public school where about half of the students were Jewish, though no one, including myself at the time, was Orthodox. I objected to the Christmas tree and to calling the holiday assembly a “Christmas assembly”. This caused an uproar and led to my impeachment.

I now recant that youthful pro-activism because there is something far, far worse than a Christmas tree in a public school and that is ….

…that there is a vacuum of values. We may not have Christmas trees in the schools, but many high schools have gay clubs and many offer abortion guidance counseling. Provocative dress is ubiquitous; unisex activites are encouraged (cooking for boys, football for girls) and old fashioned gender roles (Homemakers of America clubs for girls) are discouraged.

I wonder what halakhic problems arise when treading the fine line: I don’t want to actively encourage celebration of Christmas, but I don’t feel it is the place of Jews to tell a Christian country (and the US is a Christian country) that the majority cannot publicly celebrate, have displays, etc. Therefore I have sympathy for those who object to the morphing of Christmas into Seasons greetings. Does “mipne darchei shalom” (peaceful relations with our neighbors and host country) come into play here?

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via www.cross-currents.com.

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8 Responses

  1. dovbear says:

    The mistake was this post. You’ve been away too long.

    Using the word “Christmas” to describe the annual school party is no solution to the real problems the schools face.
    Do you really think gays will disapear and more girls will elect to be homemakers – and why is that supererior to other choices they might make -if you wish them a Merry Christmas?

    Also, you’re been watching to much Bill O’Reilly. There is no one discouraging the majority from doing whatever they like. There are limits – there have always been limits – on what a government sponosored instiution can do but individiuals and stores can do anything they like. And incidently, the claims that schools and other public institutions are being severly limited in the way that they can celebrate the holiday are grossly exagerated by Christian groups who need the attention for fundraising.

  2. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) says:

    Thank God, this [=the USA] is *not* a Christian country.
    It’s a country with a majority of Christians, yes.
    One whose general culture is saturated with the influence of that Christian majority.
    But it is not a Christain country.
    It is a country of Separation of Religion and State.
    And that is one of the greatest gifts we have ever received from the Creator of Worlds.

  3. Jacky says:

    Where I live everybody speaks about this holiday; but I never get the impression it’s something religious to them, rather it’s a holiday ergo no work or school, everybody is happy.
    I don’t reply to merry xmas with merry xmas, I just say happy holidays or something like that.
    In many buildings where Jews live there’s a christmas tree in the lobby. The Jewish residents don’t protest, and when it’s Sukkos it’s the non-Jews who don’t protest.

  4. Larry says:

    It’s easy for those of us who send our kids to day schools to minimize the effects of Christian religious displays and observances in the public school setting. But for many of those Jewish kids who attend public school, the overt and officially-promoted expression of the Christian faith can easily and reasonably lead to feelings of both exclusion and jealousy, as well as a coercive environment in which the Jews feel constrained to participate. We who have managed to insulate our children from these sorts of pressures and negative feelings should not be so quick to judge the reactions of other parents who must daily deal with a different and challenging set of realities.

  5. Leapa says:

    My sentiments precisely.
    And Larry – you’re right – but it’s part of being a Jew.
    Besides – as the scrooge who stole Christmas (tree), they’ll feel even more excluded. Or be made to.

  6. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    What is wrong with boys learning to cook? I prepare the Shabat meals as often as does my wife; is there something ussur about it? Do I suffer from a vacuum of values because of this?

  7. Lisa says:

    With all due respect, the US is most certainly not a Christian nation, and you should thank Hashem every day that it is not.

    Right now, you happen to have some values in common with the loudest of the right wing Christians. Fine. But suppose Catholics were to become a majority, and they were to make divorce illegal and remarriage prosecutable under bigamy statutes. That’s really no different than a Christian majority, or even a religious majority of any and all kinds, forcing its views on others.

    I am a frum Jew, and I’m sending my daughter to a frum school, because I don’t want her having to deal with such things in her school. Her religious education and her values are going to come from home, primarily, because we are the ones who are going to decide what values we want to pass on to her. Empowering the government, or anything run or funded by the government to take over that role is an incredibly huge mistake.

    Let’s try and remember that the last time this happened was at the time of the Rambam. Certain rabbis who opposed the Rambam’s works went to the Christians and asked them to burn his works (as long as they were burning works of their own heretics). The end result was the Christians burning the Talmud. Maasei avot siman l’banim. I think it’s important that we not repeat this mistake.

  8. DovBear says:

    Asked on my blog by Charlie Hall: What’s the heter for Jews to be ENCOURAGING the celebration of Christmas?

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