Creating a Religiously Tolerant Society–Avoiding a “Bah, Hambug!” Holiday Attitude

One of the perennial questions that seem to divide Americans is the question whether there is a place for displaying religious symbols on public properties. Advocates for displaying such items claim that religious symbols add toward the holiday festivities—after all the United States has always celebrated its holidays in this manner, why should we break with what has become a true American tradition?

On the other hand, there are those who take a critical view of this issue; they insist that our country is based upon the separation between Church and State; there is no official religion in the United States, and Christians and non-Christians need to recognize that reality, lest it appear that the government is endorsing one religious tradition over another.

While most Jews do not get upset over a sign that says, “Merry Christmas,”  displayed on public property, one New England town had a most troubling incident occur in recent weeks. The Andover Fire Department decided to take down its homemade “Merry Christmas” sign that was made by the firefighters some 50 years ago.

Understandably, the people are quite upset. The controversy began when Rabbi Asher Bronstein of Chabad, threatened a lawsuit against North Andover after the selectmen would not let him place a menorah on the town common for all eight days of Hanukah.

In the end, the city leaders ruled that the menorah could be erected for one day, rather than all eight days of Hanukah. Moreover, this one day rule applied to all organizations–religious or not– and this decision has upset the Christian community as well.

One must really question the rabbi’s wisdom of threatening a city with a lawsuit especially when there are so many privately owned buildings that would have no problem displaying a menorah on private property. No rabbinic leader should aspire to be “the Grinch (or rabbi) who stole Christmas.” Christmas and Hanukah are family celebrations that should create good will among all people of faith. Sowing seeds that create disharmony and intolerance between both faith communities ought to be avoided at all cost.

Hanukah celebrates the importance of religious freedom; if the town had banned any display of a menorah throughout the city, the rabbi’s position would at least be defensible. However, many privately owned businesses have no problem partnering with any rabbinical institution that wishes to display a menorah on its property. The purpose of the menorah is not to show off the institution displaying it; the  purpose of the menorah lighting is to publicize the miracle of Hanukah in a place that is prominent for all to see. Surely there is no lack of such places in Andover!

Even if the rabbi’s position is theoretically correct, he ought to ask himself one simple question: How are people going to feel about me creating social disharmony over a religious symbol or greeting like “Merry Christmas?” The Chinese have a wise saying, “Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from a friend’s face”You are unlikely to  kill the fly, but you will do a lot of damage to your friend! The rabbi may want to read Dale Carnegie’s excellent book,How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Hanukah’s symbolism is best appreciated when Jewish leaders act in the way of pleasantness and tolerance that does not strike at the heartland of America during this most festive time of the year. We live in a predominately Christian culture, and the last thing we want to convey to the Christian community is a “Bah! Humbug!” type of attitude. [1]  In simple terms, we can not be a light unto the nations so long as we are trying to extinguish the light of others. Just as each candle has its place on the menorah, so too does each religion has its rightful place in God’s scheme of faith.




Is vegetarianism the ultimate ideal for humankind?

With all the commotion being made about laboratory created meat, the new technological development raises interesting ethical questions whether the slaughtering of animals ought to even be continued, since artificial meat is available. Should the practice of kosher slaughter be continued? Obviously, none of us can expect to know the future. Time will tell whether such a meat alternative is even considered healthy for human consumption. That being said, if the technology can truly replicate meat in a safe and healthy way, we may live to see the day when animals will once again live peacefully with humankind. This idea is hardly original; its roots go back to the time of Philo of Alexandria, the early Midrashic literature, if not earlier.

On the practical side, everyone in the kashrut industry has long known that the biggest problem with kashrut is most typically the meat! Eliminate the problem with meat, religious Jews can eat their food with less anxiety and angst!

Some rabbinic thinkers in the last two hundred years or so have expressed some important thoughts about the rational behind vegetarianism, which exists  in Jewish thought and tradition. Marcus Kalisch, a British rabbinic scholar (1825-1888), writes about the vegetarian diet of Adam:

The lifeless creation was produced for the living beings; vegetation was destined for men and animals; no being “with a living soul” was originally intended as the food for another living creature; man was assigned to eat the seed-giving plants, and grain, and the fruit of trees; to the animals were left the grass and the herbs (vv. 29-30). Although man was permitted the dominion over the beasts of the field, the fishes of the water, and the birds of the air, he was not allowed to extend that dominion to the destruction of life; he was the master, not the tyrant, of the animal kingdom — he might use, but not annihilate it . . .

. . . Every living being has a right to exist, and to enjoy its existence; God had blessed the animals with fruitfulness; man was not allowed to counteract that blessing by killing them for his sport or his appetite. God created the world for peace and concord, no being should rage against another; the sin of man brought warfare among the living creatures; the cries of agony rent the air; man and beast raged among themselves, and against each other; the state of innocence was succeeded by the age of passion and violence; and it was only after the fall of man that animal food was permitted to him (9:3).[1]

Less than a century later, R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935) expressed a similar perspective, envisioning a time when human beings will once again live in a state of peace with the animal world, and will not need to subsist on them for sustenance: “The thrust of the idealism that continues to develop will not remain forever in its confinement. Just as the democratic aspiration will emerge into the world through the general intellectual and moral perfection, “when man will no longer teach his brother to know the Lord, for they will all know Me, small and great alike” (Jer. 31:34), so will the hidden yearning to act justly toward animals emerge at the proper time.“[2]


[1] Marcus M. Kalisch, A Historical and Critical Commentary on the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Brown, Green and Dyer, 1858), 78.

[2] Abraham Isaac Kook,  “Talele Orot”, Tahkemoni, Vol. I, (Bern, 1910, 21), cited from Ben Zion Bokser’s, Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 23.