A Rabbi’s Thoughts: What Christmas Tells Us About America

by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Originally posted on The Huffington Post


I love the Christmas season. Part of the reason for me, of course, is that it follows the eight-day celebration of Chanukah — the joyous, low-key, family oriented holiday that has inflated importance because of its proximity to Christmas but which, nonetheless, is embraced with delight by Jews of all religious orientations.

But that is not the only reason. Most Americans act differently as Christmas approaches. As a boy growing up in Worcester, Mass., I remember being aware from a very young age that my neighbors, students in my school and people on the street were — despite frenetic preparations and gift buying — simply friendlier, more relaxed, more outgoing and more inclined to smile at holiday time. Yes, yes, I know. We have all read about the commercialization of Christmas and the difficulty of maintaining its religious character in a secular world. I have discussed the matter often with the many ministers I know and with my Christian friends. Still, it seems perfectly clear to me that for America’s Christian majority, there is such a thing as the spirit of Christmas, and the goodwill of the season always manages to extend its reach, in a lighting-fast and almost effortless way, to Americans of all faiths and religious traditions. G.K. Chesterton once referred to America as “a nation with the soul of a church,” by which he meant a nation with an enduring religious character. He was right about this, and each year the Christmas season proves it anew.

I especially like the Christmas season because I know many “lapsed Christians” — those who are doubters, who virtually never go to church, or who otherwise are distant from or on the fringes of their faith — and these friends and acquaintances share with me how, at Christmas time, they are drawn to their church. Based on what they tell me, I don’t accept that this is simply a desire for family togetherness. What I hear from them is openness to Christmas’ religious message, combined with willingness — and indeed a desire — to be at church and to offer words of praise and thanks to God. I don’t know, of course, how many will establish a connection that will last beyond the holiday. Nonetheless, I am encouraged by their story. And the reason is that I see America’s religious character as one of her great virtues: a source and inspiration for morality, community and democratic values. As a rabbi and a committed religious Jew, I have spent many years working to bring Jews on the margins of Judaism back to their religion, and I believe that America is strengthened when Christians find the way back to theirs.

And finally this: To me, the Christmas season serves as a welcome and emphatic public rebuke to the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. For a variety of reasons too complicated to discuss now, American culture has opened itself up recently to voices of self-righteous atheism. These voices express the view, in TV appearances and best-selling books, that God is dead and that religion by definition is always both fanatic and destructive. Yet each year, when Christmas comes, huge numbers of Christian Americans — who, like the great majority of Americans, are insistently moderate in all things — are drawn to the holiday and its religious teachings. Scholars and religious haters take note: This phenomenon is proof that liberal religion (and by that I simply mean religion of the centrist, non-fanatic variety) is alive and well in America.

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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

About Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism. He speaks and writes frequently about Israel, religious life, social justice, and other topics of interest to the Jewish community. Read his full bio and writings on the URJ website.

9 Responses to “A Rabbi’s Thoughts: What Christmas Tells Us About America”

  1. avatar

    I read your thought on Christmas.
    I believe in One God over us all. Who is not a man, nor thinks like a man. I do believe GOD created man, and mankind, and man is created in the mirrored image of a Supreme GOD. I believe in Gen.
    Thank you, for your comments, I am alone, Christmas.
    My Children are adults. My son, has his family, and my daughter lives far away. I do see my children, (I am in contact with them), so skip the ‘feeling sorry”
    I have seen the dark side of Christmas, the greed, and the” selfishness” it can produce, in us. So your thoughts were refreshing, and I thank you for them.

  2. avatar

    Thanks, Rabbi Yoffie, for yet another thoughtful reflection. I share your warm feelings towards the positive influence Christmas seems to have on the moods and attitudes of Christians.
    I have read, much to my surprise, that Richard Dawkins still considers himself culturally Christian and in fact LOVES to celebrate Christmas in a secular way. He likes the joy of the season. I guess the idea of joy and good will is so powerful that it even inspires Richard Dawkins to feelings of warmth.

  3. avatar

    Thank you, Rabbi.
    I, too, worry about the few numbers of believers in anything at all these days. That is one of many good reasons to set aside our differences and beat our swords into plowshares.
    Shabbat Shalom!
    G-d bless.

  4. avatar

    I was deeply saddened by the Rabbi’s (et al’s.) “blenderized” description of matters spiritual here in America – whether it’s the “season to be jolly” or not – because their morally convoluted perspective sounded suspiciously reminiscent of the ancient moral commentary of our “times” one encounters, by merely applying the word of G-d as found in Judges 21:25: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.”
    I feel so warm-and-fuzzy/comfy-cozy, just knowing that Richard Dawkins has been mesmerizingly extolled, because HE “…still considers himself culturally ‘Christian…”
    Just what has the term “Christian” come to denote, since its first appearance in Acts 11:26, describing some of those potential 1st-century Jewish “Christian” martyr’s? “Ain’t that America”
    Merry Christmas!

  5. avatar

    @ David Huston
    I did not “mesmerizingly extol” Richard Dawkins. In fact, I can’t stand him. I only used his cultural Christianity and enjoyment of Christmas as an example because I find it incredible that the joyful character of the festival is so profound that it even escapes the viciously critical tongue of Dr. Dawkins.

  6. avatar
    Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman Reply December 25, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Thank you Eric for your thoughtful and insightful comments. I have spent the last couple of weeks with our people out here teaching and talking about the confluence this year of the Torah reading this Shabbat (the birth of baby Moses (we have a baby story too) and what it signifies; the use of the word teva only twice in the Torah, for Noah and Moses, and the correlation of the redemptive hope and experience) and how Christianity borrows these messages in the Christmas narrative. The redemptive message is at the heart of what both Christianity and Islam borrow from Jewish tradition and how wonderful it is that Judaism through the prophetic teachings brought this message to the world. May they be loyal to what they borrowed and the dream of hope, salvation and redemption in this world.

  7. avatar

    Rabbi Jaffe: I wish that the “warm fuzzy: feelings you attribute to pre-Christmas America applied to the approach of our own Holy Days. In my experience (growing up a reform Jew in Baltimore – I am now in my 88th year)as our Days of Awe approached the tension between the branches of our religion were exacerbated and we (Reformed)were castigated for riding to services, not fasting long enough and other misdeeds. And we, so-called progressives, did our share of accusation of hypocrisy Things have changed somewhat, as the conservative synagogues moved to the suburbs (necessitating driving) and we introduced more Hebrew – but not enough to usher in an era of good feeling. (I am now a member of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire where this antagonism has been overcome – with an effort from both sides). I would appreciate your thoughts on this touchy subject.

  8. avatar

    @ Rabbi Zimmerman:
    Your comments were extremely thoughtful, and most insightful. Yet, concurrently, I found some remarks to be strangely provocative as well! Please allow me to explain.
    Aside from the fact that official Islamic doctrine teaches that “Islam” has repudiated and/or replaced both “failed religions” of “The People of the Book” (that would be Judaism & Christianity), and has thus since considered itself to be “THE” final revelation to mankind – if it wasn’t through Jesus – then what message of “redemption” has God been utilizing to make
    himself known to the nations the last 2,000
    years, seeing as though currently, perhaps 10% of world Jewry is considered religiously “observant,” and, rather paradoxically – these religious adherents to the variously divergent streams of thought within “Judaism,” primarily seem to be ministering only unto themselves?

  9. avatar
    Julie Rosendorf Johnson Reply December 26, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Thank you Rabbi for your insight regarding the spirit of Christmas. We are raising our two young sons jewishly in New Jersey and still share Christmas with my husband’s family every year in Oklahoma.
    My 7 yr. Old asked yesterday, ” what does grandma mean when she keeps saying,’the spirit of Christmas,’ ?”. I struggled to answer him with some generic analogies of the tzedakah and other mitzvot we do all year long but I felt uneasy.
    Your appreciation and respect for this time as an opportunity for the majority of Americans to connect spiritually w g-d and their communities is enlightening. Thank you again.
    Shalom, Julie

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