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.




Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary

The British conversion crisis in Britain illustrates why a separation between Church and State is vital for everybody involved. The job of being a Chief Rabbi is not without its politics and intrigue.

Yet, in the everyday politics of the job, even the Chief Rabbi occasionally yields to the intransigent forces that define the Haredi community of Great Britain.

It was the year 2005; two women, who had undergone an Orthodox conversion in Israel, apply to get their children enrolled in the prestigious Jewish Free School of London. Rabbi Sack’s Haredi beth din, however, refuses to admit the children.

Political rivalry between Israel and Britain goes back a long way; back in the 1970’s, even the Chief Rabbi himself, Rabbi Shlomo Goren discovered that his conversions were not recognized by the London Beth Din. In rabbinical terms, this amounted to a public humiliation to the Israeli Chief Rabbi!

Rabbi Sacks realizes that he cannot succeed in his job without placating this radical element in his community—even if he must violate the very liberal principles regarding pluralism that he has endorsed in his books.

Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbi buckled under the pressure. He refused to certify either woman as Jewish. As the issue is examined, we discover that there are certain “procedural irregularities” in the conversion of Helen Sagal, he said; and Helen Lightman — herself a teacher at JFS — could not have been a “sincere” convert, because her husband, whom she married under Orthodox auspices in New York soon after her conversion, was a kohen. Jewish law requires that a kohen not marry a convert. However, if such a marriage occurs, the marriage remains intact, but at a loss of the kohen’s personal status in the community, e.g., he would not be able to receive a special honor being called first to the Torah when it is read.

To enforce its standards, the Jewish Free School initiated a litmus test to test the religious attitudes of its students—standards that are not really required by the Halacha itself—as the rabbis attempt to micromanage the families involved. For example: each family had to have a mezuzah on their door; students and families had to attend at least four services a year at the synagogue. During the High Holy Days, shuls of every denomination placed a box at the entrance, into which parents could slip a card with their names, proving attendance. Continue reading “Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary”