TORAH COMMENTARY: A Jewish Christmas?

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(Click to download. Caption: Dr. Erica Brown) 

Now in the month of December and the Hebrew month of Kislev, we are confronting the annual December dilemma for interfaith families. How and should interfaith families observe two sets of traditions? We’ve heard of the Hanukkah bush and Jewish themed stockings for the mantle; now the latest Sky Mall catalogue presents its solution with the Hanukkah Tree Topper for $19.95. Here’s the ad for a Jewish star to decorate the top of a Christmas tree (I am not making this up):

Here’s the perfect way for interfaith families to celebrate both holidays. The patented menorahment design of the Hanukkah Tree Topper makes a great gift for Hanukkah or Christmas traditions. Available in silver metallic-coated, textured plastic, with a steel coil for easy, sturdy mounting...A must-have for interfaith marriages!

This item may solve a decorating problem, but it moves us further into a painful conversation that most people want to avoid, but few can in this season that surrounds us with religious imagery. I, for one, have never bought the logic that the Christmas tree is a secular, seasonal item and, therefore, can be displayed in the White House and on the National Mall. For many people it is not a spiritually neutral object. For people in interfaith relationships, trees, crosses and stars can be highly-loaded symbols, packed with family associations and memories.

Week after week in the New York Times, I read of interfaith couples who are married by a friend or relative who is a Universal Life Minister. I wondered how so many people got ordained just for the wedding until I found out the secret. You can become ordained in this ministry in 10 minutes, for free, with an on-line application as long as you are over thirteen. Sadly, people are turning to this as a solution and leaving the conventional frameworks that have either rejected them or not appealed to them in the first place. Another chance to bring people in is lost.

Intermarriage is clearly a norm in America today but not, I believe, a comfortable one for many parents who never expected their own children to choose out. I regularly meet adults who serve in leadership positions in Jewish institutions and become shame-faced about the choices their children have made.

“Where did we go wrong?” some say with angst, assuming that they had something to do with it. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. It is hard to believe that those who rejected their children in the past for making such choices by sitting shiva did anything positive to create family unity or bring their kids back into the fold. Welcoming intermarrieds into the home may be the only way, after the fact, to help couples raise Jewish children and grandchildren.

There is a great deal of research today on whether intermarriage is ultimately healthy for the Jewish people, and not only from a biological standpoint in mixing up the gene pool. Books and papers have been written with definite agendas and outspoken conclusions; some are politically motivated. It’s still early to tell if there will be any positive outcomes of this trend, or if we are drinking the denial Kool-aid about its actual national impact. Others put their heads in the sand and pretend this isn't a significant challenge for American Jewry right now. We would be wiser for opening up a difficult but necessary communal conversation.

Before individuals make this choice, they might want to consider the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” If it works for you, does that mean it will work if everyone did it? In other words, what would become of Judaism if everyone were to make the same choice an interfaith couple makes?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks responds to the ultimate in Kant’s challenge by saying that we will be judged not by Jewish children but by our Jewish grandchildren. That's the chain of tradition when it is working maximally. He adds, “Not only is intermarriage rising, resistance to it has almost disappeared...The astonishing chain of American continuity is breaking. American Jewry is assimilating with the speed of the lost tribes.”

Many people in interfaith relationships are working hard to raise Jewish children against some incredible odds. What are we doing to help them? How are we engaging in the difficult and personal dialogue about interfaith families that touch virtually every family I know? This is the season—not for Hanukkah Tree Toppers—but for a long overdo communal discussion about the Jewish future in the face of intermarriage. It’s about the Jewish grandchildren.

Dr. Erica Brown (pictured, click to download) is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on December 5, 2011 and filed under Opinion, Torah Commentary.