For decades, I served as a rabbi who ushered non-Jews on the path to becoming “Jews by Choice.” When a person raised as a Christian made a heartfelt and genuine commitment to becoming Jewish, I pressed them on their intentions around Christmas. Were they really making a wholehearted commitment? If so, they should resolve not to celebrate with Christian family, and especially not to have their children visit grandparents for Christmas.
Why was I so adamant? I think I would have answered that Jews are an embattled minority in a majority Christian culture, and that committing to a Jewish life entailed the resolve to renounce the allure of the Christmas season. Ever since Biblical times, Jews have sought to remain separate, distinguishing ourselves by what we wear, what we and do not eat, how we seek to remain a holy, godly people even when we are surrounded by tempting alternatives.
In retrospect, I think my attitude had much more visceral roots. A dozen years ago, I began a spiritual directors training program at The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. Shalem is an ecumenical, interfaith organization, but the two-year program included two ten-day residencies at the retreat center of The Holy Trinity Monastery in Pikesville, Maryland. I was the only Jew in a cohort of nineteen. The monastery’s iconography was initially extremely uncomfortable—the crucifixes, the portraits of saints, the murals. It felt like a spiritually inhospitable environment. I didn’t belong there.
Over the ten days of the residency, my feelings changed. As I became acquainted with the insights and prayers of my fellow students and my teachers, I felt very close to them. I had many close Christian friends in my life, but I had never gazed directly into their inner life. I had assumed, I guess, that at their core, there was something foreign, alien in their souls, that I could never fully understand them and they could not understand me. I discovered that wasn’t true, and with the growing spiritual intimacy that developed, my aversion to the Christian symbols on the walls diminished. Symbols that I had associated with Christian oppression of Jews now appeared to be vehicles of deep Christian spiritual transformation.
Since then, my views about Christmas have changed significantly in the nine years that I have shared a home with my husband Michael. Michael is a Jew by Choice who is part of a large Roman Catholic extended family.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners are wonderful occasions for extended family get-togethers that resemble Thanksgiving more than anything else. Some people arrive after attending mass at church, but that doesn’t even come up in conversation! There are decorations and the tree with gifts under it and children excited about what they will receive. Nobody tries to convert me, and nobody expresses sympathy that I do not celebrate Christmas. In fact, my nine-year-old nephew insists that we host everyone for Hanukah, because he loves eating latkes and playing dreidel and lighting candles. Last year, he even revealed to his mother that he wants to be a rabbi when he grows up.
In nine years, I have attended several confirmations, more church weddings, and unfortunately even more viewings and funeral masses. I read the Irish blessing at the funeral of my mother-in-law. I am not embarrassed about this. I am proud to celebrate and mourn with people I love deeply. Michael and I will not have children of our own, but if we did, the last thing I would want to do is keep them from their grandfather at Christmas. They would know they are Jewish, and they would know that a large number of loving relatives are not.
I believe that my own spiritual life has been deepened immeasurably by what I have learned from non-Jews—Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans. If we Jews choose not to live separately in ghettos anymore, we may as well venture out into the greater marketplace of religions, sufficiently secure in our own identities. We do not need to distance ourselves from people who may be less different from us than we thought.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/jewish-at-christmas.