How 'Judeo-Christian' are we?


December 23, 1992|By Sam Weiss

IT started out as a joke many years ago in the greeting card section of your local store, but with every passing "holiday season" the joke -- as Alice in Wonderland might have said -- is getting seriouser and seriouser.

Each year around Hanukkah, American Jews witness the curious phenomenon of this wonderful holiday, rich with meaning and traditions, being absorbed into the "Christmas spirit."

The greeting cards that attempt to combine the two holidays in a humorous vein (as with the Hanukkah bush or with reindeer delivering Hanukkah presents) are bad enough. But the cards and homilies in the various media that attempt to homogenize in a serious vein the Jewish and Christian "holiday season" are the ones that really worry me. In the same category are public school concerts and presentations that "balance" Christmas music with token Hanukkah songs.

Two factors are at work here, both of which are harmful to the fostering of a healthy Jewish identity. First, we have the myth of the American Melting Pot rearing its head again -- whether in a commercial or a civic effort -- by trying to merge a distinctive ethnic holiday into a common American holiday season.

This was always of dubious merit, even when it was in fashion. Attaining a proud America by building Americans with pride in their own individual heritages is more advantageous than neutralizing differences and promoting some fictitious common American culture.

Second, and more to the point, we have here an example of the insidious myth of the "Judeo-Christian" heritage that we Jews are supposed to have in common with our Christian neighbors.

This is a philosophy which is untrue, unrealistic to cultivate and unfair to the integrity of both parties. From the Jewish point of view, this attitude may perhaps be best understood as a Christian use of "if you can't beat them, join them." That is, join them with a hyphen.

In this age we're witnessing the crumbling of artificial cultural hyphenations, be they the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" or the wishful union of several inimical republics into one Yugoslavia.

Similarly, the attempt to join on whatever level the two distinct and incompatible traditions of Judaism and Christianity can in the long run be no more beneficial. What we do have in common with many Christians worldwide is a heritage of mistrust and fear of the other, which must be explored and extirpated, but not by creating some make-believe common cultural, moral or theological heritage.

How said and ironic that it is Hanukkah, of all the Jewish holidays, that is being mutilated in this fashion, simply because of a coincidence of the calendar. For the message of Hanukkah is precisely the Jewish triumph over Hellenization; it is a message of guarding against the intrusion of the values of an outside culture.

What a tragedy, then, to celebrate our civilization's triumph over Hellenization even as we may be becoming victims of hyphenation.

True, the "Judeo-Christian" greeting cards and messages appeal to people who have no strong religious or emotional investment in either holiday. The commercial popularity of the cards, moreover, reflects society's realities of intermarriage and assimilation.

But it all seems less a cause for celebration than for apprehension.

Sam Weiss is cantor of Ner Tamid Congregation in Baltimore. This is reprinted, with permission, from The Flame, a publication of the congregation.

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