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How Can We Compete?

Dear Cyber-Rav,

My daughter asked me why can't Jewish people put up lights like Christians do, particularly since we light a Menorah. She is also understandably jealous of the "Christmas People." She asks why everything is for Christmas? How should I respond to each of her questions?

Also, she has asked a lot about Santa Claus? Whether she can watch Rudolph the red nosed reindeer? Is a snowman (or Frosty the Snowman) just for Christians? Are the lights of doves and snowflakes for Christians? I know the answer is--be more Jewish!--but what else?

How Can We Compete?

The Cyber Rav Answers:

Dear How Can We Compete,

Thanks for writing. Your daughter and I have something in common: we both like Christmas. I hope that doesn't sound heretical to you, but I'm just being honest. I like Christmas carols, the lights, the trees, the gift-giving, the message of peace, the Salvation Army collecting charity, etc. And I'll tell you the one thing that I like best about Christmas. I like Christmas morning when there seems to be such a quiet in the neighborhood and there are so few cars moving about the street. Every Christmas morning I have the same thought-I wish Jews could create this sense of peace and quiet in their neighborhoods the way Christians do in theirs, on Christmas day.

Christmas is a great educational tool because it allows us to teach two important principles of Conservative Judaism. The first is respect for our Christian neighbors. If your little girl enjoys aspects of Christmas, that's great. To say something positive about our Christian neighbors is a good thing and she will always be able to tell her friends how much she enjoys the Christmas season spirit and customs. Imagine how good we feel when Christians tell us that they respect our traditions! Your daughter is in a position to return the favor.

The second thing that Christmas allows us to do is to teach Jewish distinctiveness. Christians do X but we do Y. I sense, from your e-mail, that you are somewhat uncomfortable in saying that. You're not alone. Most Jewish parents hate saying it. Our generation has grown up on a steady diet of Jews claiming that we are no different than anyone else, and it's a sentiment that is killing us. The fact is that unless we create a real sense of Jewish distinctiveness, we will be lost in the lure of an assimilation that knows no boundaries. The Torah teaches us to never imitate hukkat hagoyim or gentile customs. Because Judaism is so action-oriented, it is difficult to argue that even though we act like them, we are not them. In the Jewish frame of mind, when we act like them we in essence become them. And so, it is one thing to appreciate what Christians do during this season--that's fine. But to actually imitate what they do-putting up lights, wreathes, Christmas trees, giving gifts to each other on Christmas day-no. We don't do that. In fact, it is a sin. We have to let the Christians do their thing as sure as the Jews must do theirs.

There are some symbols of the season that are fairly innocuous-snow flakes, Frosty, etc. The dove is a Christian message over this season (even though its message of peace is one which we embrace), and Rudolph is getting a little too close to Santa, Santa not being a neutral character but decidedly Christian. Nevertheless, even Santa carries a message that we can all appreciate-be good, and reward will come our way.

In conclusion, I don't think the answer is to ignore Christmas or simply focus on Jewish things. I think the answer to little girls who love Christmas is to acknowledge that it is a lovable time. It's okay to openly appreciate Christmas. Maybe take a drive through the neighborhood and look for homes that have really done up the decorations lavishly. At the same time, our approach to this season is that this is their holiday, not ours. We are two very different communities. We do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. We must be honest with our children. We respect our Christian neighbors, but we remain firmly rooted in our own traditions.

We have to create a sense of Jewish distinctiveness, of being different, a consciousness that openly acknowledges Jews being a people onto themselves, in order to successfully create the next generation of Jews.

The CyberRav

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