Why THis Rabbi Loves Christmas Dec 23, 2016 11:24:24 GMT -5
Post by shira on Dec 23, 2016 11:24:24 GMT -5
Why This Rabbi Loves Christmas
Christians and Jews await the messiah. The only debate is if he’s been here before.
By Michael Gotlieb • Dec. 22, 2016 6:54 p.m. ET
Christmas fascinates me. I’m drawn to its history, its color, its atmosphere, its music. And, of course, I’m drawn to the fact that Jesus was a Jew. He was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jew. If for nothing else, I can appreciate Christmas as the celebration of one Jew’s epic birthday.
The 20th century philosopher and theologian Martin Buber would often begin lectures to ecumenical gatherings by stating that a key difference separating Jews and Christians is whether Jesus was the messiah. Christians believe he was, and they are awaiting his return. Jews believe that the messiah hasn’t yet come. His suggestion: Let’s all pray for the messiah—Christians and Jews alike. When he arrives, we’ll ask if he’s been here before.
While I am a religious Jew, and Judaism unequivocally promotes belief in a messiah, the concept sometimes puzzles me. My difficulty with the notion of a messiah is not an issue of faith—that’s too personal to argue. The question is if the messiah were to appear, or reappear, what would he say that hasn’t already been said? I assure you that there would be nothing new, no surprises.
The messiah would likely declare that we shouldn’t treat fellow human beings like objects and that we shouldn’t steal from one another. To bring peace to the world, the messiah would certainly demand, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Don’t murder—especially in the name of God,” “Don’t commit adultery,” and “Don’t bear false witness.”
He would no doubt add that personal and universal redemption requires that we not gossip, manipulate others or act deceitfully, and that we should channel and refine our base impulses. This would help us become kinder, humbler and more human. All of us are well familiar with these timeless moral instructions, the result of our affiliation with churches and synagogues. Such lofty principles are hard-wired into the universal Judeo-Christian ethic. A messiah need not repeat them.
Even if his message isn’t fresh, many idealize the messiah as a personal redeemer, a force capable of divine, superhuman power. Who hasn’t prayed for miraculous intervention? Whether it be for help to overcome a personal obstacle or for a loved one to survive a deadly disease. What is one to do when no more human interventions are available? Given that life is not merely physical, we all have a spiritual dimension that requires attention.
Humans naturally search for a superhero—something to apprehend the bad guy, to stop the disease from spreading, to change human nature and the physical order of the universe and save the day. A messianic belief can help fill that yearning. It has for me.
Yet the issue isn’t necessarily the messiah. To think so is to take one’s eye off the theological ball. The real issue is God. The messiah can become a veil, it can separate us from the primary source. I’d prefer to blame or praise God directly and not a messianic filter.
Within Judaism, rabbinic law has become a potential veil between the individual and God. Rulings on Jewish law are too often engulfed in a labyrinth of hairsplitting debate. Not uncommonly its resolve depends on the authority of a particular rabbi or academy. The forest is too often lost amid the trees.
So while Christians ask, “What would Jesus do?” Jews ask, “What does Jewish law say?” That’s completely understandable from a traditional Jewish perspective, and it is often praiseworthy. But, I wish Jews would learn from their Christian cohorts and ask directly, “What would God say?” Just as the Prophet Micah did by asking, “What does God require of us?”
Christmas and its celebration of the birth of Jesus compels me to think about the concept of a messiah. I am grateful to my Christian neighbors and friends. Through their religious holy day, I am better able to confront and clarify my own religious convictions and theological certitudes.
Like a brightly lighted Christmas tree, Christianity dispels a lot of darkness, theological as well as moral. In its glow, it challenges Christians and non-Christians alike to consider that which is transcendent, eternal and greater than us all. Merry Christmas indeed.
Rabbi Gotlieb is the rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation, in Santa Monica, Calif.
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