Is Thanksgiving For Jews Too?
Wednesday - November 26, 2008
I think we’ve been through all the usual discussions about Thanksgiving. Was it a real colonist-Indian feast? Is it a fake holiday? Should American Indians boycott it?
So this year, something different. My wife and I ingest Thanksgiving dinner each year with a half-Jewish (one is, one isn’t) family. But here’s an academic issue. Commemorating any non-Jewish holiday raises questions for traditionalists about biblical and rabbinic law forbidding Jews to imitate non-Jewish customs and traditions. What’s halakhic (Jewish legal) for our host family and Jews in attendance this Thursday night?
First, Thanksgiving isn’t regarded as a religious holiday, so that’s not an issue. But as rabbinical authorities explain it, there’s a problem with “foolish customs” found in the Gentile community, even if their origins are not idolatrous.
Rabbinical scholar Moshe Feinstein has written that “on the question of celebrating any event on a holiday of Gentiles, if the holiday is based on religious beliefs by the Gentiles, such celebrations are prohibited if deliberately scheduled on that day.”
That probably saves Thanksgiving since at most, in many homes, there’s a rather ecumenical prayer offered. But it seems to doom the Jewish half of my host family, which reciprocates by annually attending my Christmas dinner. We don’t do any Christian rituals, but the day does observe the birth of Christ as Savior. Very Christian.
But wait! Along comes Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner. He argues that whatever the merit of celebrating Thanksgiving the first time in the 1600s, the establishment of any annual holiday that is based on the Christian calendar is closely associated with idol worship and thus prohibited.
Hutner says, “In truth, one must distance oneself from these types of customs and even from those events that are similar to these types of customs. The truth is simple and obvious.”
So maybe the Jewish half of my host family is double doomed?
Maybe not. Other rabbinical scholars say that Jews can, with good conscience, adopt the customary practices of their community. And I think, in this community, we robustly celebrate Thanksgiving as a family day for people of all sorts. Frankly, in a good cross-section of homes we celebrate Christmas the same way. The Christian theme has faded into the background while Santa, food and gifts are up front.
BUT ... if I were to bring any semblance of a religious ceremony into either our Thanksgiving or our Christmas gathering, then our Jewish friends should bow out if they are to follow Jewish law. I don’t do that, and therefore Halakhah (the body of Jewish law) seems to permit everybody to have Thanksgiving with Jewish or secular friends and family.
I’m darn glad to discover this loophole because my Jewish friend Lynne is one great cook.
May all of you enjoy this holiday as much as I will. And please give generously to the Hawaii Foodbank, Institute for Human Services and River of Life Mission for food for those in need of it.
P.S. A holiday means more folks at the beach - with more dogs off their leashes - and lifeguards who seem to ignore them. City Ocean Safety and Lifeguards Division needs to have a chat with its people about that.
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