From a pretty young age, I had a sense of the divisiveness surrounding differences of religion, but it was hard for anyone to help me understand why. Especially since, aside from our labels, I couldn’t find much that was different between the Jews and Christians I knew.
But there must have been something different about us, because one day my parents told me about the Holocaust. So, apparently there were people out there who really hated Jews. I remember saying to my parents, “If the Nazis knocked on my door, I would have just said I wasn’t Jewish.” But I felt like I was letting my religion down by saying it – like the right thing to do would have been to stand up for the religion my ancestors had chosen for me, even if it meant getting killed for it. It was confusing, because I was partial to staying alive.
When I learned that my mother had grown up Protestant and converted to Judaism, it just made for more confusion. Apparently there was something she thought was better about one than the other (despite the whole persecution thing), and I wanted to know what it was. Her mother tried to slip us pamphlets for an organization called Jews for Jesus. I sensed that my parents disliked this, but a part of me thought maybe it was wise to cover our bases.
My Christian friends seemed oblivious to the fact that I was Jewish, so for a while I thought the whole thing was just a problem of the past. But, as I got older, I heard adults talking about the country club in town that didn’t accept Jews as members. Later, kids started a game of rolling quarters down the hallway at school, and whomever picked one up would have “Jew! Jew! Jew!” yelled at them. I picked up several of those quarters, because, hey, free money.
Once, a Jewish friend shared this juicy tidbit of gossip with me: get this – Jesus was Jewish! Really. It’s true. The next time I saw a kid with a crucifix, I told him he was wearing a Jewish guy around his neck. He told me the Jews killed Jesus. I said if they hadn’t, there wouldn’t be any Easter, and that would mean no chocolate bunnies.
Christmas was kind of a mixed bag for me. I already had the feeling that the world was Christian by default, and Christmastime was confirmation of this. We all sang Christmas songs at school, the town got decked with Christmas decorations, we had “Christmas vacation,” Christmas music filled the airwaves, and it seemed almost every TV show had a Christmas episode (notwithstanding allegations that the Jews run Hollywood).
I felt guilty for thinking Christmas trees were pretty and for liking Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I was also very attracted to those wooden nut crackers that look like soldiers, but, unable to figure out whether they were a Christian thing or not, I kept it a secret from my parents. There were some lucky Jewish kids whose parents buckled to the pressure and got a Christmas tree, but I had a feeling that if Christians were right about the whole hell thing, Jews with Christmas trees might end up in Jew Hell.
The Christmas season always seemed much more exciting for Christians than Jews. Oh, sure, there’s Hanukkah. But it’s a pretty minor holiday, really. And traditionally, it has nothing to do with gift-giving or fancy decorations. In chorus, some teachers tried to insert the occasional Hanukkah song, but let’s be honest – there’s really only the one about the dreidel, and it’s right up there with Row, Row, Row Your Boat among songs least likely to stir any kind of emotion in you. Several Christian kids usually vocally objected to having to sing a Jewish song, which made me feel bad that my culture was responsible for their unhappiness. The only ammo I had was, “Yeah, well, Hanukkah lasts EIGHT DAYS and there’s only one day of Christmas!” But they usually retorted that Christmas is actually twelve days, so there.
In my teen years, I assessed the whole religious situation, decided it gave me more distress than happiness, and rejected it together. I became an atheist and nonconformist. I didn’t really know much about religion, but I also didn’t want to blindly conform to any social construct, and religion seemed the most insidious – a yoke from primitive times, before science and laws, when it was needed to explain natural phenomena and scare us into proper conduct. At best, I saw it as a group that fostered personal growth and mutual support that I didn’t need. At worst, it was a device that was exploited for power and to lend false merit to our arguments and prejudices.
Then, despite my best intentions, I had a number of intense spiritual experiences in my twenties, after which it was impossible to remain an atheist. Spiritual experiences aren’t easy to explain, but I would say I had the realization of a certain constant that pervades and interconnects everything. I could use words like Love or Awareness or God, but they come about as close as reading the words “huge mountain” does to actually standing on top of a huge mountain. It was like realizing there’s another color – besides red, orange, yellow, etc. – that has been here all along, but that I somehow failed to notice before.
I felt more humble toward everything, including organized religion, and I decided to approach it with a new innocence. I discovered that religion is utterly fascinating. And beyond all the differences, I saw that most religions were founded on the same basic seeds of truth and virtue. This is especially poignant with the three main Abrahamic religions – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity – which share most of the same principles and many of the same scriptures and prophets, yet have long histories of fighting.
I also saw that, over time, these truths tended to be corrupted and obscured by the confusion, neuroses and political agendas of some of their followers. And this – not the founding principles – is where the divisiveness comes from. Of course, the baby shouldn’t be thrown out with the bathwater, but there really is a lot of dirty bathwater in the history of religion. Thus, I believe the practice of an organized religion should always be accompanied by (1) an attempt to discern its transcendent principles from the dogma of misguided humans; and (2) an effort to find common ground with those of other traditions. As I see it, any doctrine that promotes divisiveness between people couldn’t possibly be the “word of God.”
As all of this pertains to the upcoming holidays, I think Jews and Christians – and Pagans, for that matter – are essentially on the same page. Regarding Christmas, whether you believe he was the son of God or not, by all accounts Jesus was an enlightened dude who utterly embodied unconditional love and tolerance. He condemned no one. He stood up for an adulteress who was on the verge of being stoned by a vicious mob with the famous challenge, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (Think about this the next time you encounter someone using Jesus’s name to support their bigotry.) Christmas is a celebration of this selfless man and what he stood for.
As for Hanukkah, the nutshell version is that around 170 BC, a sacred temple in Jerusalem was invaded and desecrated by the Seleucids, who then outlawed the practice of Judaism and turned the temple into a shrine to Zeus. A few years later, the Jews revolted, took control of the temple again, and cleaned it up. According to Jewish tradition, there must always be a flame burning in the temple, but they had only a tiny bit of oil – enough, they thought, to last maybe a single day. Miraculously, the flame endured for eight days. For this reason, Hanukkah is an eight day Festival of Light. My understanding is that the flame symbolizes the presence of the Divine in our lives – even in dark times – and our higher consciousness, light, virtue, and hope.
From Germanic Paganism came the tradition of Yule, central to which was the burning of the Yule log. The Yule log started out as an entire tree, which was brought into the house and ignited to provide abundant light and warmth. Yule and related pagan traditions emphasized the significance of the winter solstice as the darkest day of the year, when fire was celebrated as a symbol of the return of the sun, of longer days, more light, and the hope that people would survive until spring. As you probably know, most Christmas traditions – the Yule log, the Christmas tree, the mistletoe, the ham, caroling, lights, and garlands – were originally pagan.
So, all three traditions could be seen as celebrating inclusion. At this cold, dark time of year, it is appropriate that we should honor these qualities, all of which are widely associated with the heart – light, warmth, love, and acceptance. Unconditional love, like fire and light, excludes nothing and no one. It warms the isolated and forgotten and illuminates the darkness. Like fire, love accepts everything that it encounters and unifies it all (in the case of fire, the varied things it consumes are all rendered into one homogeneous ash). Fire, like love, is inviting. As the centerpiece of many a winter gathering, everyone comes to gather around its flames, and it seems to melt our hardness and facilitate merriment.
In the coming weeks, why not focus on the qualities these traditions share? Imagine a flame in your heart, coaxing it to open, begging to be shared with everyone you encounter. Find the aspects of yourself and the world that you have been pushing away, excluding them from your light because you dislike them, disagree with them, or can’t accept them. If you deny them warmth, acceptance, and light, they will remain dark, cold, and unloved, and you will feel fragmented. Instead, try to bring them in, include them, illuminate them, and accept them. Make a game of it. See what happens.