I have been so busy preparing for Hannukah and Christmas (both) that I have, thus far, pushed away the urge to weigh in on the so-called "December dilemma" (a term used to describe to the quandry in which so called "interfaith" Jewish/Christian couples find themselves as Hanukkah and Christmas approach). I find the discussions facile, and believe that in the course of them, too often, the most important truths relating to both holidays -- those pertaining to light, the miraculous, and liberation from darkness -- wind up glossed over and negated.
I recently read a young Jewish mother's account of her attempt to explain to her very young child why their (Jewish) family did not celebrate Christmas. In earnestness, she compared the solemnity of Christmas to that of Yom Kippur. A noble enough effort; she was not entirely wrong in this. Yom Kippur and Christmas do have a few things in common: twice-a-year worshippers show up at temples and churches on these days; both holy days are, in essence, solemn. But it was Xmas, not Christmas, on which the gleam in the eye of the young Jewish boy in question was fixed, not Christmas.
The truth is, that unlike Jews who show up at shul twice a year at Yom Kippur for a big, holy idea, twice-a-year worshippers of the non-Jewish persuasion show up at Christmas mass for pageantry. I don't think that's a bad thing. Religious ritual is rarely trivial, and there's never a bad reason, in my opinion, for "dwelling in the house of the Lord," because the beauty of these spaces -- what Catholics call the "smells and bells" factor-- jump start the spirit.
Nonetheless, I know, while taking part in the Christmas Eve mass in the church I attend regularly, that I am surrounded by many who are celebrating "Xmas" and not "Christmas." One of the delightful ironies of the Hanukkah versus Christmas conversation is the propensity of Jews to put Jesus back into the feast from which so-called "Christians" regularly expel Him. The notion that Christmas as we know it is essentially religious is simply not a reasonable "given" in the proof of whether a Jew who tolerates a Christmas tree is some kind of tribe-traitor. Most people in the U.S. who celebrate Christmas are not engaged in Christian worship when they do so. Many don't give fig (or cup of figgy pudding) about Jesus as they put the angel atop the evergreen. It's Xmas (hold the Christ, please) they celebrate. Whether for better or worse (I think it's both.) Xmas in the U.S. today has little more Christ in it than Saturnalia did.
But one always makes the same mistake the aforementioned mother made when one compares things Jewish and Christian. It's always apples and oranges. Further compounding the analysis is that it is fundamentally anti-Semitic and misleading to employ Christian terms and constructs when discussing aspects of Jewish culture and worship. Both holidays in the U.S. now bear the taint of 'Xmasization,' for the bastardization of "Christmas," which gave us "Xmas," also turned the festival of Hanukkah -- a sweet, restrained, family celebration -- into a tinselly over-inflated Christmas wannabe.
Were I to venture, despite the oranges and apples factor, to compare Christmas to any Jewish holiday, I might suggest that Passover is the one more like it. In some ways, Passover and Christmas have similar shapes. Each is joyous. Both are chiefly home-based (not temple-based) holy days. Both often call for travel and protract beyond a day or two. Both respond and reflect in gorgeous and specific ways to the dramatic changes of the seasons in which they occur. Both run deep in the secular and social self.
Most germane to the dueling Solstice holidays question is that the pleasures and joys associated with Passover are ones few Jews having known them would easily forfeit. Christmas runs deep in those who celebrate it. We celebrate Christmas even through loss, tragedy, death. This persistence is built into the essence of Christmas because in its purist form, Christmas celebrates the refusal to be mastered by darkness. Christmas is our holiday of hope. In this regard it does indeed remind me of Passover. For those raised with Christmas who do not believe in God, Christmas and Xmas both often retain vestiges of this hope, spirituality, and the root essence of the sacred warmth associated with the holy day. Banishing hopeful enjoyment and expression of this spirit and sacred warmth serves no one. It's hard to imagine that snuffing out such light honors anyone's God.
It seems reasonable to ask whether a family that begins to anguish over its religious character (or lack of one) when the Christmas decorations magically appear on Fifth Avenue isn't putting too little emphasis on Jewish tradition, prayer, ritual and culture throughout the other 10 months of the year. It's easy to understand why those questioning their degree of Jewishness might wish to view December celebrations as some kind of ultimate test for authentic Jewishness, but the Christmas or not assessment is not a valid one. The need to embrace it as such may be, at least in some, a symptom of a so-called "interfaith" family's failure to develop Jewish consciousness during the other 49 or so weeks of the year.
Those who are not Jewish have trouble understanding the "tribal" piece of being Jewish and therefore are not able to understand how disrespectful to Jewish tradition Christmas can be. Very young children of all ethnicity and religious backgrounds really can't grasp the personal politics that grow out of 5000 years of struggle, exile and persecution. As an Irish Catholic, I have a slight inkling of what the tribal piece might feel like, but I can never really know it. Being reasonably well-edified, I can help my Jewish husband plant the seeds for Jewish consciousness in our children, who are, despite what some (whose sexist and medieval definitions and opinions I have considered and rejected) say, children of "the tribe." I celebrated my 53rd birthday last August. No one else in my family tuned 53 that day, but we all celebrated. I celebrate Christmas as a Catholic. My family joins me in it, but they do so as non-Christians.
One favorite "go-to" friend on matters religious is a man I might describe as a devout Reform Jew whose approach to observance I have long admired. He believes in God, observes Sabbath, studies Torah, and has raised (with the help of a non-Jewish wife) children with strong Jewish identity. Every Christmas Eve, however, he prepares a traditional Christmas Eve dinner for his (practicing) Catholic wife. The wife retains her Catholic beliefs and devotions, but has a fierce and abiding love for Jewish prayer, ritual and culture. She has raised Jewish children, works in the temple and supports her husband in his dedication to Torah and Sabbath. The notion that her husband's choice to lavish a little Christmas on his wife might render this religious man somehow less Jewish is absurd. What he celebrates, when my friend makes the special meal, plays a Sinatra Christmas recording, or maybe even allows the gentile's "tree with lights in it" to a place in his home, is not so much Xmas as it is the mitzvah of his marriage, the honor of his wife, the love that moved the Creator, and the remotely Saturnalian determination of all human spirits to seek warm and light as winter's chill closes in and darkness descends on the material world.
I understand the Jewish concern for erosion of Jewishness. Not a Friday night dinner goes by in my home wherein I don't take up this topic for discussion for the benefit of my own children. Building Jewish consciousness in a family in which only one parent is Jewish can be difficult -- especially in a world still filled with so many doltish Christians so quick to brandish the cross as an instrument of prejudice and torment. In my own home, the Jew (who is not religious) teaches Jewish cultural identity and consciousness, but it is the Christmas-celebrator in our family who takes up teaching the children to worship as Jews. If parents build Jewish identity -- if the foundation is sound -- the December dilemma can become a non-issue.
I don't want a crèche at the courthouse. And a Hanukkah menorah there doesn't make me feel any better about the creche, because the public menorah-lighting is a by-product of the "Xmasization" of Hanukkah, which offends me. I don't like the "war on Christmas" whiners. I don't like Christmas bullies. But when one Jew tells another Jew he or she "can not" celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, he or she engages in a variation of the same kind of bullying in which the pro-Christmas soldiers in the "war on Christmas" engage.
If so-called "interfaith" couples want their children to be Jews, they should introduce their children to he splendor of Jewish knowledge, ritual, sacred texts, practice and prayer. If children come to know that they are Jews and what that means, the Maccabees will always trounce the elves. Alternatively, if children with Jewish parents are not taught what those eight nights of fat and light actually mean, the jolly fat elf will win.
I don't much like the "interfaith" religion game plan for children. As a somewhat religious woman who has been teaching children for more than 30 years, I'm pretty sure raising children to believe as both Christians and Jews is not tenable. If, on some divine transcendent plane poets, philosophers and mystics frequent, such a reconciliation, between Jewish and Christian belief, is possible, it lies well beyond the reach of young children. The closest children get to such holy sublimity is through their angelic capacity to give and receive love. All children need the grounding of knowing who they are in order to grow in love, to learn that the variousness of the world is its own kind of blessing, and to arrive at the awareness that celebrating with those one loves is a mitzvah. We honor God and creation when we teach them to build this fire and how to feed its glow.
This week the United States Supreme Court decided not to hear a case filed by a Bronx church (Bronx Household of Faith) which would render a decision on whether it is lawful for religious groups to hold worship services in public school facilities. As a result, 60 churches in New York City will lose the worship spaces they rent in public school buildings when school is not in session.
Worship is a big part of my life. I attend mass often. I attend services at a synagogue occasionally. I celebrate my own Sabbath -- as well as my husband's -- weekly. I'm a Catholic who strenuously opposes school vouchers. I don't want a crèche outside my courthouse. I don't even want a Christmas tree there. I question whether any church should have tax-exempt status. To my thinking, the Decalogue has no proper place in a courthouse. I think it improper when the president drops God's name in a speech. Yet when it comes to the question of whether a church has the right to rent space in a public school, I'm not sure what I think.
On one hand I know prayer has no place in public schools; on the other, I believe that those who worship have a have as much right as any other group to assemble and to rent space for this purpose.
Until recently I worked in a social justice ministry established and run by Park Slope Presbyterian Church, a church which has been renting space for Sunday worship in John Jay Complex, a public school building in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Until quite recently, this building was occupied by three struggling schools which (mostly) black and Latino students attend. (A fourth school -- a screened school designed to attract white middle class students -- opened in the building in September of 2011 with the help of corporate funding.) John Jay, which was not long ago known as "Thug School" (Lately I've heard eighth-graders call it "the segregated school.") has long been forsaken by neighbors in its affluent part of town and the NYC DOE (New York City Department of Education) who took not nearly enough interest in a building with chipping paint, non-operational toilets, and metal detectors at the entrance.
Park Slope Presbyterian got ejected from John Jay this week as a result of the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the Bronx Household of Faith Case. I asked Sandhya Reju Boyd, an active member of Park Slope Presbyterian and a founder of one of its vital (and ever expanding) advocacy programs for the indigent, for her thoughts on the new restrictions. She noted that her church did not merely rent space at John Jay, but that Park Slope Presbyterian took an interest in the John Jay community. When the school's scoreboard broke down, for example, Park Slope Presbyterian stepped up when no one else would.
"No one at the DOE gave them the money. Our church did. We were proud to do it...so they would not have to forfeit their season... "
On one hand, relationship is the very thing those who oppose allowing churches to hold prayer services in public schools fear. On the other hand, because the Park Slope Presbyterian worshippers had a committment to leaving no evidence of their presence at the school after assembling there, few if any children even knew a church group was using their cafeteria on Sundays.
Millions of dollars have been poured into the NYC schools by 60 churches that have rented space in public school buildings over the past decade. Those schools will lose that revenue now. With regard to the Park Slope Presbyterian/John Jay arrangement, I think it ironic that an invisible church served as a supportive presence in a invisible school -- by which I mean invisible, in the Ralph Ellison sense. Before the NYC DOE pushed the new school into John Jay, students in the building were -- as poor people so often are in NYC -- in their own community. Park Slope Presbyterian saw them.
The Jubilee ministry operating out of Park Slope Presbyterian offers free legal services to Islamic clients in Sunset Park, Russian Jews in Brighton Beach and to people of all or no religious affiliation and ethnicity who have been pushed out of downtown and Brownstone Brooklyn by developers and the forces of "gentrification." How ironic that that should now find themselves evicted from of their worship home for religious reasons.
Each year on September 11th, I attend a mass for a local Fire Engine Company. A party takes place after in the public school next door to the church. If the priest on hand leads the crowd in a prayer of thanks before eating, does such a luncheon become unlawful? Perhaps so. The 2011 Appellate Court decision views the presence of an ordained leader as being material to the question of whether a gathering can be considered a "worship service."
Yogis are not ordained, per se, but certainly the collective "Ohm" is a prayer. Will yoga classes in New York City public schools now be deemed unlawful? Would a group called "Assembly of No God" be permitted to rent the John Jay cafeteria on Sundays?
Although we can (and must) draw lines to ensure that schools do not teach religion, endorse religion, permit collective prayer while school is in session, we can no more kick prayer out of schools than we can evict God. The courts acknowledge this every time they rule.
In 2001, the Supreme Court found that bible studies groups could not be prohibited from meeting in public schools when the schools were not in session, but 2010 the Second Circuit of the Court of Appeals held that a distinction must be made between worship services and after-school programs that may happen to involve religious expression. The Appellate Court's decision focused on the dangerous potential of churches to turn public school spaces into sanctuaries for prayer:
A worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church. Unlike the groups seeking access in those cases, Bronx Household and the other churches that have been allowed access under the injunction tend to dominate the schools on the day they use them. They do not use a single, small classroom, and are not merely one of various types of groups using the schools; they use the largest rooms and are typically the only outside group using a school on Sunday. They identify the schools as their churches, as do many residents of the community.
It would seem that in Bronx Household of Faith Case the line became blurry. That line, which is so hard to draw, runs down one hell of slippery slope. It is the honorable work of the courts to ensure that this line is never perforated.
One big problem with the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the Bronx Household of Faith Case is that case is that now, under New York law, it will fall to the DOE to decide which programs can rent space in schools. Anyone who thinks that the DOE can be trusted to rise to the occasion of such nuanced philosophical decision-making doesn't know very much about the DOE. It should think it more wise to prohibit all public schools from renting space to groups of any kind than to entrust the DOE with defining "prayer service." Being itself lousy with institutional racism and mired as it is with discriminatory practices, the DOE is in no position to offer rental contracts to some and not others at its own discretion.
Reverend Matt Brown, the senior pastor of Park Slope Presbyterian Church, said it better than I can when he spoke to the New York Times:
"I would love to know who at the Board of Education is theologically capable of making those decisions."
I'm not sure where I stand on the question of whether churches should be able to rent space in public schools, but I am sure that the NYC DOE is not up to the task of deciding which groups should be permitted to rent space in schools. I might be more comfortable with a decision that prohibits all groups from renting space in public school buildings.
Though I loathe the pervasive, erroneous, and dangerously presumption that somehow those who practice Abrahmic religions have some kind of monopoly on virtue, and applaud the tireless efforts of the courts and legislators to protect citizens from the tyranny of organized religion, I recognize that there's no practical way to expel God from public schools entirely. But does barring religious groups from renting space in public schools accomplish that -- or does it merely grant the schools more license to discriminate?
I asked Sandhya Reju Boyd for her thoughts on the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case. Besides being a member of a church that lost its space this week, Reju Boyd is an attorney. She explained:
The Separation of Church and State is about the commingling of power, not just about the shared use of space. At the time the constitution was written, was the shared use of common space the norm in many communities, i.e the one room schoolhouse doubled as town hall, church space...
The Juris Doctor touches on a crucial imaginative distinction. A school is not merely a building. A church is not a merely a physical space.
I've taught Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in public school classrooms. If "Song of Myself" isn't a prayer, I don't know what is. If a reader cannot see that "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is a Christian sermon, he or she is not paying attention. Sometimes a yoga class is an exercise class and sometimes it's worship. Sometimes a luncheon is one-part prayer service and one-part lunch. Park Slope Presbyterian may do "God's work" in the city of Brooklyn, but it is as much a social justice operation as it is a church.
I do not question the need for a line between church and state but in this case, I question whether the line has been drawn in the right place. I would prefer to see the courts err in the 'freedom from religion' direction -- but I'm hoping for a "Miracle on 34th Street"-style outcome for Park Slope Presbyterian. I pray they will receive a home for Christmas, an external home befitting the "interior castles" they quite clearly carry wherever they go.