Tag Archives: Christmas

Out of Balance

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen recalls the healing work she did with a Holocaust survivor, whose response to the enormity of the spiritual pain he lived with was to close off feelings toward people and to be “cautious with this heart.” Dr. Remen relates that he joined her on retreat after he was diagnosed with cancer. Initially he was belligerent to strangers, but through inner stillness exercises and introspection he had a transformational experience. One day, while meditating, he sensed a deep pinkish light emanating from his chest. He felt enclosed by a beautiful rose. Troubled by the experience, he took a walk on the beach and began a silent dialogue with G-d. He asked the Creator whether it is all right to love strangers. G-d’s answer jolted him: “You make strangers, I don’t.” In that instant, the Holocaust survivor’s feelings of interpersonal distance began to melt. Strangers were no longer strangers. It was all right to love a stranger.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“Tif’eret: Growing a Wise Heart” (pp 154-156)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

I’ve been feeling off balance lately. Most of it has to do with how I choose to react to what I see, hear, and read about in the world around me, both in real life, and via the Internet. I’m not encouraged by what I see, but if you’ve been reading my “meditations” for the past week or so, you already know that. I found I needed to write this “extra meditation” to try and re-establish a bit of balance and to reduce my desire to wad up the whole world of religion like a piece of tissue paper contaminated with dripping bile, and toss it in the nearest toilet.

For Christians, this is a time of year (ideally) when they re-attach to the true meaning of loving and giving, by expressing the will of God with their lives in the community around them. If God was willing to send His “only begotten son” to suffer and die for us so that we could be reconciled to the Father, then why shouldn’t a Christian “pass it on”, so to speak, and offer grace, kindness, and mercy to the next fellow, regardless of who they happen to be? After all, Jesus died for us while we were still enemies of God (Romans 5;10). Must we only show goodness to those people who look, act, and believe like we do? Why even “tax collectors” and “pagans” do that (Matthew 5:42-48). Nevertheless, the religious community, or some portions of it, confirm the belief in the secular world that we are all bigoted haters and want to force the whole world to be exactly like we are.

“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God.”

That’s part of the oath people used to take when swearing to tell the truth in court. They don’t make you say it anymore because someone was offended with God and we wouldn’t want to God to offend someone, would we (this is sarcasm)?

On the other hand, we shouldn’t go out of our way to be so dedicated to what we think of as “truth” that we automatically condemn, revile, disdain, and hate those people who apparently (perhaps by putting up a Christmas tree) don’t have “the truth”. After all, they must be evil and wrong and we have to stop them by telling them how lousy their cherished faith is, don’t we (that’s more sarcasm)?

OK, I’m still out of balance. Quickly, someone toss me one of those poles used by tightrope walkers, or better yet, another story from Rabbi Laibl’s book (pg 147):

Once upon a time a king had two close friends who rebelled against his kingdom. The king seemed to have no choice but to execute the law – the death penalty. But he could not bring himself to kill his friends. Instead, he erected a tightrope over the courtyard at a precarious height. Each prisoner was allowed to walk across the tightrope to freedom. The chances were slim, yet miraculously the first prisoner succeeded. The second prisoner called out to his friend for advice, and the freed man obliged. He called back, “Whenever I felt myself beginning to list to one side I didn’t wait until my weight was there but immediately compensated.

This Hassidic tale invokes many portions of the Bible, including how God sent His Son so that we might all have a chance to conquer the death penalty by “walking the straight and narrow”. Notice though, that in order to navigate the rope, you couldn’t be an extremist. If you went too far to the left or to the right, you would be killed. In fact, when you even thought you were starting to slip to one side, to survive, you had to immediately shift your weight in the opposite direction.

Also, notice that the freed man went out of his way to help his friend rather than taking his salvation and running away. Notice that even though the king (God) had every right to execute the rebels, because they were his friends and he had compassion, he tempered his justice with mercy. Justice was not thrown away, but he gave the rebels a chance, probably more of one than they deserved. Justice was balanced with mercy and grace.

We don’t do balance (or mercy and grace) very well in religion and yet, it’s all over our history. Moses Maimonidies (Rambam), as quoted in Rabbi Laibl’s book (pg 146) “counseled his disciples to take the middle path.” I know I talked on this exact same topic last week, but plenty of people still aren’t getting it (especially the majority who don’t read my blog, though they may not agree with me, even if they chose to read these “meditations”). It is one thing to say that you disagree with someone based on your convictions and your understanding of the Bible, but it’s another to condemn them and to believe God will destroy them. Some compare a Christian who celebrates Christmas to a husband to cheats on his wife (and there are plenty of marital metaphors in the Bible), but that metaphor breaks down at some point. A husband and wife are both human; both equals, while God is not human and we can not aspire to ever be His equal. A husband may come close to really understanding everything his wife is about, but we have absolutely no clue exactly what God is all about.

In the end, even if God chooses to condemn others and even if we were “right”, should we have treated those others negatively and with such extremist attitudes and even pride, or should we have balanced our approach to them as God did for us, tempering justice with mercy? Many religious people want to dump the justice onto others but covet the mercy all for themselves, not passing it along. Doing this, are we really God’s children?

Fragmentation Dilemma

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?

Christmas Trees and Panic Attacks

There are many quaint customs that get passed on from father and mother to son and daughter. Some of these practices are minhag Yisrael which developed for various reasons. Others are firmly based on halachah. Still others are sometimes misapplications of both.

A new school is always an adjustment. Especially if one commutes, it is hard to know just how much food one needs for his grueling day. One commuting student was somewhat hungry and had nothing left from his lunch. A kindly student—an Israeli of Sefardic descent—shared an apple with the new student. To the recipient’s surprise, there was a bit cut away from the apple. “Why is some cut away?” he asked his friend.

“My parents do that to all of the produce which comes through our house,” the boy explained. “It is a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of tithing produce.”

“What, in chutz l’aretz?” wondered the surprised boy.

“That is our custom,” was his friend’s simple reply.

In addition to a snack, the recipient had also received much food for thought.

When he got older he learned the probable source of this custom was a misapplication of a practice during the times of chazal which is not relevant in most places today. In the word of the Beis Yosef, zt”l,: “Since the custom is not to take terumos and maasros in these lands, I do not wish to discuss these halachos at length. Although we find in Bechoros 27—and other places in the Talmud—that they used to take terumos and ma’asros outside of Israel, the Ri, zt”l, explains that this only applies to lands which are close to Eretz Yisrael. Tosafos in Avodah Zarah writes the same, as does the Rambam in the beginning of Hichos Terumah…”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Family Custom?”
Bechoros 27

I read this and immediately thought of the continuing discussions in social media on the pros and cons of celebrating Christmas. These discussions reach the level of a “spiritual panic attack” in some corners of the Messianic world while the topic is all but ignored by the majority of folks in traditional Christianity and Judaism.

I was talking to my wife about traditions the other night and so much in the Judaism is driven by tradition. The interesting part is, there isn’t just one Jewish tradition. For instance, if there is a general ruling applied in the Talmud, but your local Rabbi has a differing opinion, a Jew is obligated to follow their local Rabbi’s ruling. Ashkenazi Jews have a tradition of considering beans and rice as leavened during Passover while Sephardic Jews do not, so if you are Ashkenazi, you are obligated to follow your own tradition (whether you personally agree with it or not) rather than choosing the Sephardic tradition. And as we see from the quotte above, there can even be family traditions within Judaism that are considered binding.

No wonder Judaism is confusing for most non-Jews.

I’m writing this to say that there can be more than one right way to behave as a person of faith and more than one tradition that is correct, depending on who you are and how you are identified. I don’t mean to say that there aren’t wrong things for a person of faith to do, but I am saying that there may be multiple streams of “correctness” or “acceptability”, depending on your traditions. The celebration of Christmas is a tradition. It’s attached to an actual event, the birth of Christ, but there’s nothing about the timing of Christmas or how it is observed, particularly in the modern era, that is really tied in to the birth of a baby boy to a young Jewish couple in first century occupied Israel. It certainly isn’t a celebration that the disciples of Jesus followed, either during his lifetime or after the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. I can’t imagine Paul showing the Gentile disciples in Antioch or Rome how to put up “Christmas” decorations.

But it’s a tradition that, in one fashion or another, the church as been celebrating for a very long time. How it is celebrated as changed over the years and the Christmas that we have now is just a few centuries old. For all those nations where Christmas is celebrated, it is observed with different types of traditions, and some are very different from what we have in America. There are even different ways to celebrate Christmas in different churches in the same city and even between different families who go to the same church.

And then there are corners of the Messianic movement that go absolutely bonkers at this time of year if anyone even breathes the suggestion that celebrating Christmas might be “OK” and not automatically “pagan” and “evil”.

I read a recent commentary on Facebook that was “shared” and originally written by a Messianic teacher I’ve never heard of before (I won’t mention names but the commentary got my attention, though not in a good way). This person compared the Christmas tree to the Tower of Babel, directly applied the prohibitions against idols written in Jeremiah 10 to the Christmas tree, and made an absolute statement that celebrating Christmas leads to (spiritual) death.

Oh my!

One of the reasons I left “the movement” was because of some of the more outrageous teachers that are attracted to “Messianic Judaism”. As in many other religious traditions, there are a number of different branches to “Messianism” and some are more “interesting” (I’m trying to be polite) than others. I have many friends in different branches of the movement, both in person and on the web, and I’m not trying to offend any of them, but I need to try to remind everybody that none of us has the secret keys to the truth and any of us can go off half-cocked given a good enough reason.

It’s OK to disagree with someone’s religious practice and to believe their understanding of the Bible is wrong. However, it is not OK to pass judgment on others to the point where you state unequivocally that those folks with whom you disagree are “going to hell in a handbasket.”

Interestingly enough, my family and I went out to dinner tonight and afterward, we stopped off at a confection shop in the Boise North End called Goody’s. The place was completely decked out for Christmas and while we were waiting for our order to be filled, my son told me there were some things about Christmas that he kind of misses. He lives in his own place and I told him he could decorate it for the holidays if he wanted, but he said it wouldn’t make much sense to do it just for him. He also said that he didn’t doubt he’d celebrate Christmas in the future when he had a family of his own. I was just a little surprised, but he was probably referring to the significant likelihood that he wouldn’t marry a Jew (just how many eligible Jewish young women are there in Boise, anyway?). Michael self-identifies as Jewish and has a spiritual component to his life, but he isn’t particularly religious. It occurred to me that in addition to community traditions and family traditions, sometimes there’s the evolution of the traditions of the individual. Like I keep saying, we all make decisions and we all manage the consequences in one way or another. We all have different ways in which we relate to each other and to God.

We need to keep it together, gang. Faith in God is about listening to and being supportive of others, even if they are different from you. Disagree on principle if you must, but do not condemn, especially if you aren’t that sure of how God views our traditions and particularly when you realize that how we understand the Bible and God may not have absolute fidelity to the original. For tomorrow morning’s “meditation”, I’m posting a blog called “The New Testament is Not in Heaven”. I hope I can further illuminate the role of tradition in our lives for both Christians and Jews, and just how much of what we believe comes from God is actually based on traditions.

Addendum: For more on this topic, go to Kabbalah Christmas and The New Testament is Not in Heaven.

Kabbalah Christmas

Hessed is the emotion of giving and sharing. When we reach out to a person in need, we are drawing on our Hessed flow. It is the basic cosmic flow with which creation is imbued. Indeed, we can say that the Sefira of Hessed is at the heart of humanity’s desire to make a meaning contribution to the world.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“Hessed: Unlocking the Flow of Love” (pg. 120)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

Does a kosher Christmas tree really exist? Well, not exactly but a new trend is taking place across the globe of topping off Christmas trees with a Magen David (“star of David”). As oxymoronic as that sounds, thousands have been sold in the US, Canada, the UK, Austria, Ireland, Australia and Mexico.

Not surprisingly, the holiday season can be a difficult time for interfaith families made up of Jews and Christians. The excessive commercial marketing of Christmas often makes Jews feel left out. Enter Morri Chowaki. He is a Jewish man who is married to a woman whose mother is Jewish and father is Greek Orthodox.

-Tobi Janicki
“A Kosher Christmas Tree?”
First Fruits of Zion blog.

No, I haven’t lost my mind (at least I don’t think I have). I know there’s no such thing as a “Kabbalah Christmas,” but I thought it would be a great title for this morning’s meditation, hopefully the title will attract a little attention and maybe even inspire a few folks to stick around and read today’s missive (please feel free to comment, too).

I never thought I’d write about Christmas. My family hasn’t celebrated this holiday in a religious or even a secular manner for well over a decade. But in reading about Hessed and Gevurah (more on that in a minute) in Rabbi Wolf’s book and then reading Toby’s write-up about Christmas at the FFOZ blog, inspiration took hold of me. After all, when we think of Hessed (sometimes spelled, “Chesed”), we think of acts of kindness and charity, which are certainly consistent with the highest ideals of Christmas. But there’s an important flip side.

Strength takes on many forms. Some of us are physically strong, or our strength may lie in our willpower. We may be strong-minded, or we may allow our feelings to flow strongly. Perhaps we have strong convictions. Our faith may be unshakable. The Kabbalah tells us that each of these forms of strength is connected by a common flow – the flow of Gevurah. (pg 132)

Our natural tendency is to be Hessed oriented, but sometimes it is necessary to be highly focused, single-minded, and self-contained to achieve a specific goal. At such times, the balance must weigh heavily in favor of Gevurah rather than Hessed. (pg 135)

Rabbi Wolf speaks of Hessed and Gevurah as being in balance for a spiritually healthy person, with each of these natures coming to the forefront as the circumstances require. Hessed allows us to give to others in need without being overly concerned with our own desires while Gevurah keeps us from giving our rent money to charity. Each, as an apparent opposite of the other, has its place, but neither one should exist without the other. If they are out of balance, we could ignore the needs of our family to give to the poor or horde our very last dollar without considering the starving widow and orphan in the slightest. There are blessings involved in meeting our personal and family responsibilities and in acts of loving kindness to the stranger. Life is a study of duality and balance.

Toby’s article speaks in part about intermarried couples and how Jewish and Christian spouses might try to “manage” Christmas between them. In my household, that isn’t one of our “dualities”, but for many couples it certainly is. Even for someone like me there is a sort of “dual-mindedness” about this time of year. My family and I originally gave up Christmas because of its “pagan” origins. I’ve long since left that particular “boogey man” behind, but I left Christmas behind, too. I don’t find the Messiah and Savior “living” anywhere near December 25th and I see him much more clearly through the “lens” of Sukkot and Pesach (Passover). Yet I self-identify as a Christian, which drives other Christians nuts.

Christian blogger Antwuan Malone asked me:

So, you mentioned “the thought of facing the requirement of celebrating Christmas within church context”. What do you mean?

I’m curious why you don’t celebrate Christmas in any form.

You can click the link I provided above to read my answer, but the wording of his question tells me that even when Christians struggle with managing Christmas in their lives, they still can’t understand why another Christian would choose not to celebrate Christmas in any way at all.

I suppose it’s because I have no emotional ties to Christmas. Although I enjoyed Christmas for the loot I raked in as a child, I don’t recall any warm, fond memories of Christmas time that overcome me with nostalgic bliss. As an adult, I wasn’t a traditional Christian long enough to form any meaningful emotional and spiritual connections before I turned onto the Messianic path. Now that I’m a Christian again (sounds strange, I know), I have nothing to “fall back on” in terms of a nostalgia for Christmas. It just doesn’t “feel” like the birth of Christ or any other high point on my religious calendar. I suppose, put in “Kabbalah” terms, my Hessed is coming up rather dry and my Gevurah is restricting my response.

It’s my Gevurah that also looks at the power surge of emotions and expectations of Christians at this time of year and wonders why I must feel joyful and cheerful and happy. Even the secular world thinks of Christmas as “the most wonderful time of the year.” If I have anything “against” Christmas at all anymore, it’s that expectation that I should feel something and that I must be channeling Ebenezer Scrooge if I don’t.

I’d be a lot more comfortable enjoying my freedom from holiday stress and shopping anxiety if there wasn’t this latent desire in the world around me to drag me into a set of emotions I just can’t relate to.

Usually around this time of year, I’ll hear of some news story where a person loads up the parking meters downtown with quarters so no one will get a parking ticket, or someone will take $500.00 and pay for gas for customers at their local gas station while the money lasts (both of these stories are true, by the way). I can’t complain about Christmas spirit like this except to say I wish Christians would behave with such Hessed the year round.

I’m looking forward to having a few days off toward the end of this month, eating Chinese food (a tradition in my house on December 25th), warming myself in front of the fireplace, sipping a glass of wine, and reading a good book (on Kabbalah, perhaps). The few strings of Christmas that are still tenuously attached to my life will tug at me and I’ll notice the slight pull, but I’ll continue to balance the wants and needs of this time of year in the secular and Christian world, against the feeling of lightness I’ve come to enjoy at not being a enthralled to the heavy demands of the yuletide season.

For many, December 25th is the day when the King of King and the Lord of Lords was born, and that peace on Earth and good will towards others can be celebrated in anticipation of the return of Christ and the peace he will bring. I can’t deny that specialness to those who feel it nor would I ever attempt to speak against the kindness others express toward their fellows during this holiday. I only ask that you don’t expect me to feel what you might be feeling. I do not disdain Christmas for being pagan nor enrapture myself with Carols and Nativity scenes. I look forward only to a quiet sort of peace which is not Christmas for me, but rather the ability to let Christmas pass by me like a momentary breeze on its way to January.

Addendum: For more on this topic, go to Christmas Trees and Panic Attacks and The New Testament is Not in Heaven.