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Merry Christmas is Not Offensive -- Jews Should Protect Religious Freedom for Everyone

Rabbi Daniel Lapin

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Well, December is nearly here which means the dreaded "C word" is upon us. Put politely, "the holiday season" is nearly here. We shall all hear those "Happy Chanukahs" and "Happy holidays," but rarely a "Merry Christmas." Secular fundamentalism has successfully injected into American culture the notion that the word "Christmas" is deeply offensive. I think we Jews may be making a grievous mistake in allowing them to banish Christmas without challenge.

We see obsequious regard for faiths like Judaism and even Islam, while Christianity is treated with contempt. I don't want Judaism treated with less respect. I want Christianity to be treated with as much respect.

Step up to the greeting card racks in your local drug store and see what I mean. Virtually every Chanukah card is respectful. Similarly, every Kwanza card is a paper paean to this rootless, recent invention. You won't find many cards taking vulgar shots at those holidays.

You will, however, find tasteless cards that mock Christmas. You'll find off-color risqué Christmas cards that you'd be embarrassed to be caught looking at. Few even mention Christmas, almost as if the word is so offensive that casual card browsers should be protected from accidental contamination. Secularism is saying, if we can't completely banish Christmas, let's at least turn it into a bad joke.

Our self-appointed "leaders" in the Jewish community do us no favor by denouncing every public expression of Christian faith as if it were a ham sandwich at a barmitzvah. Anti-Christianism is unhealthy for all Americans; but I warn my brethren that it will prove particularly destructive for Jews to be leading the extirpation of all signs of Christian fervor from the village square. Just look at France. Only a religion can stand up to another religion. Christianity could have defended France, but secularism wiped pushed Christianity into retreat. Now, Islamic fundamentalism has its way because there is nobody with moral fervor to resist. Secularism promotes cowardice, not courage and that is bad for everyone.

Nearer home, Palm Beach prohibited a Christian group from placing a Christian manger scene alongside a menorah on public property. One of the plaintiffs, a Christian woman named Maureen Donnell, told Fox News, "They've discriminated against us, they allow the menorahs but they have absolutely no interest in these Nativity scenes."

Although Palm Beach didn't always welcome Jews, today it is a city with a large Jewish population. It would have done wonders for Jewish Christian friendship if Palm Beach's Jews would have valiantly defended religious rights for everyone, not just for Jews. Too bad they missed this opportunity. Remember, friendship is a two-way street.

This I can promise all Jewish parents--trying to prevent your children from awareness of Christianity is not enough to fill them with a love for Judaism. That takes dedication. You should not allow your children to listen to rap music's obscene lyrics. But neither should you recoil in horror when your kids hear Christmas carols. It is invariably a local Reform rabbi who teams up with the ACLU to file a lawsuit against the school singing carols. Christianizing the culture is not the problem for Jews, secularizing it is.

A music teacher in a Washington school removed Christmas from the lyrics in Dale Wood's "Carol from an Irish Cabin" to read: "The harsh wind blows down from the mountains and blows a white winter to me."

Parent Darla Dowell, whose 7-year-old daughter sang the song, called the decision "absurd." "I think the most important thing that angers me is that they sent a message to my child that there's something wrong with Christmas and saying Christmas and celebrating it and performing it at her school with her peers," Dowell told Fox News. She couldn't understand why it's okay to exclude Christmas when her daughter was forced to sing Hanukkah tunes that included lyrics about the "mighty miracle" of Israel's ancient days. In that song, there were at least six mentions of the Jewish holiday.

Will Mrs. Dowell think better of Jews on account of their yanking Christmas? How exactly does this aggressively applied double standard help to maintain the mutual respect that used to characterize relations between American Jews and Christians?

A 1989 Supreme Court decision found a Nativity scene on city property to be unconstitutional. The court emphasized that the privately owned crèche was indisputably religious. In the same case, however, a five-judge majority found that a nearby display, featuring an 18-foot Hanukkah menorah did not violate the Establishment Clause. In the interests of fairness and friendship, we Jews ought to protest the court's anti-Christian bias. Nationwide, Christmas Nativity scenes are banned from city halls and shopping malls but Chanukah menorah's are frequently permitted.

I know the court's distinction but I reject the legal fiction that a menorah, over which I say a blessing invoking God's name, is merely a cultural symbol. I think most Christian's also find that distinction meaningless and offensive.

As an Orthodox rabbi with an unquenchable passion for teaching Torah and devoting myself to the long term interests of Judaism and America's Jewish community, I believe we Jews must turn our backs on the secularism that will sink us all. An act of friendship would be welcome. Let us all go out of our way to wish our many wonderful Christian friends--a very merry Christmas. Just remember, America's Bible belt is our safety belt.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox Rabbi in Seattle, Washington and President of Toward Tradition.

Read the entire article on the Toward Tradition website (new window will open).

Posted: 24-Nov-05

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