At first all existed as a single whole in a single thought. Then it fell below, shattering into tiny fragments and fragments of fragments. Now Man picks up the pieces and says, “This seems to belong to this, and this relates to that,” until he reaches back to the whole as it was in primal thought.
It is not the cause and why of things that we find. Things are the way they are because that is how their Maker decided they should be. That is beyond the domain of intelligence. The beauty of intelligence is that it finds the harmony and elegance of the whole as it was originally conceived.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
I really thought I’d write just one blog post about Christmas and the anxiety it produces in the Christian, Jewish, and Messianic communities, and then I’d be done and move on. Wrong. The giant panic attack over “Christmasphobia” seems to be (you should pardon the expression) snowballing in the religious blogosphere and social media space, and I can’t leave it alone. There are so many “teachers” and “experts” who keep hammering on the points of “I’m right and you’re wrong” and “Christmas is evil!” that it makes me wonder if the community of faith is about serving God and other people or about establishing the “rightness” of various individuals and sub-groups in our little corner of the religious world.
I suppose I’m not immune since I still feel the need to blog about all this, and I hope I’m communicating, not the need to be “right”, but the message of tolerance and understanding. I know that there is an absolute God who has absolute standards in the Heavenly realm, but if you’ve been a human being and religious for more than just a few days, you should know that trying to distill an absolute right and wrong in every single matter of living existence is no easy task. In fact, it’s probably not even possible.
Look at what Rabbi Freeman might be saying. Here’s my picture.
It’s as if we all woke up one morning to find ourselves in a fog-enshrouded field. We aren’t quite sure who we are, who all these other people are around us, and what we’re doing here. We notice tons and tons of very small fragments of “something” lying all over the field and we realize that we can figure out who we are and learn to understand each other if we just start to pick up the pieces and put them back together again. This is an enormous effort and requires that everybody work together. As our pieces begin to take some sort of form, we start arguing over how the pieces are supposed to fit and what shape they’re supposed to build. Depending on the person or group of people doing the building, the pieces all fit together differently and take on many different shapes. There are pieces and shapes that are impossible to make, which defines “wrong”, but we are all surprised that there is more than one way to make a “right”.
Derek Leman recently wrote A Sermon on Belief and Intelligence which illustrates as much as anything how faith and human intelligence must go hand-in-hand. To quote from the blog post, “Unexamined faith is cowardness” and “intelligence alone can’t explain the mystery.” Since human faith and human intelligence are not the same universally across all people groups or across all individual human beings, we end up with a high degree of variability in how we use faith and intelligence to “understand” God and “understand” the Bible (and I’m not even including any other faith groups outside of Christianity, Judaism, and their variants). Given all that, it is the height of arrogance to say that any one tradition is the one right tradition (I know, I keep hammering on this point in blog after blog, but it’s important and almost nobody “gets it”).
Within you as an individual and within your particular religious group (and I suppose even secular humanism qualifies as a “religious group”), you settle on standards and principles and things you “know” are right and wrong, but try to realize that other groups have their standards and principles, too. Even when we depend upon the same Bible or, to return to my metaphor, we are working with the same pieces, we use our traditions to fit the pieces together differently and to create a shape that’s different from the shapes of other groups, even when we’re using almost exactly the same pieces (i.e. Bible).
I like one of Julie Wiener’s quotes from her In the Mix article on Christmas especially well and as far as I’m concerned, she has more credentials as a Jewish woman in an interfaith marriage to make such a commentary than most of the “pundits” in the religious blogosphere who are using their points to stick it to their brothers and sisters in faith.
A few years ago, the sight of my offspring engaging in tree trimming might have made me squeamish, but this year, while we don’t (and won’t) have our own tree, I’m on a bit of a crusade, so to speak, against Christmasphobia. By which I mean the attitude many Jews (even some intermarried ones) have that Christmas and all its trappings must be avoided at all costs lest we assimilate into nothingness — and that we must be offended when clueless but well intentioned Christians wish us a merry Christmas or offer us gifts wrapped in red and green.
Like intermarriage itself, the presence or absence of a Christmas tree in one’s home is often used as a shorthand pulse check of Jewish identity — and both are rather flawed, simplistic measurement devices.
The fact is that many interfaith families, and in-married families with Christian relatives, do live full Jewish lives yet also partake in Christmas celebrations.
Although Judaism obviously struggles with the “Christmas dilemma”, that struggle doesn’t come in the form of a vicious attack on those people who put together the pieces of their puzzle into the shape of a Christmas tree. We universally fail to work together as people to put the pieces together into their original, single, unified shape. As human beings, this seems to be an insurmountable goal. But while we work in our own groups to build our own shapes and see how the pieces fit together for us, let us also fail to criticize, attack, revile, and humiliate the other groups simply because they use their own tradition to put their pieces together differently than we do.
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? -Micah 6:8 (NASB)
Only God can put together the pieces back into the original, perfect whole. The Messiah will come again to show us that pattern. For now, we are here and we have been given the job to do justice as we understand it, to love kindness as we have been shown it, and to walk with God along the path we see before us. How we do this will be different, depending on the path we walk. Why is that so hard to understand?