Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas and Chanukkah? Or Christmas and Passover?

This is the text of a d'var Torah entitled Love Your Neighbor that I delivered on Shabbat Sh'mot, Tevet 18, 5771, December 25, 2010, at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, WA. 

Shabbat shalom!

V’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha. Ani Adonai. “Love your neighbor; for he, she, is like you. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) This text, the basis for the summary of Judaism favored by Rabbi Akiva and many others, is not found in today’s Torah reading. It is the heart of Judaism out of which I am speaking this morning. I’m using Norman Hirsh’s (Emeritus Rabbi, Beth Am) translation, not the common one of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and I hope by the end of this d’var you will see why.

This Shabbat morning we have a remarkable opportunity. For today, the 18th of Tevet on the Jewish calendar, the Shabbat of Parashat Sh’mot, is also the 25th of December on the secular or shared calendar, also known as Christmas Day. We’re here in shul this morning, all of us—Jews or fellow travelers with Jews or friends or partners of Jews or just curious souls—to observe Shabbat by davening and hearing the Torah portion of Sh’mot read; while all around us, at this very moment, the majority of people are celebrating Christmas, either in their homes or in churches.

So what are we going to do with this opportunity?

Shall we ignore it? Why should we care? Why should we pay attention to what the dominant culture of Christians, our neighbors, are doing right now? This is Shabbat, the "sign forever" (ot hi l’olam) between The Holy One and the Jews. This is our rhythm, our celebration. Let’s not get distracted. We have to deal with this every waking monet---why on Shabbat too, and in shul, our sacred space, free of outside encrouchment? Let’s just go on with our practices and observances without mentioning those “others.” This is a way I, like many of us, have practiced for many years, and it is a good way.

Or how about this? Shall we confront this situation and talk about how difficult it is to be Jews this time of year, how hard it is to keep our heads above water let alone swim gracefully in this cultural tsunami called the Christmas holidays. Talking about “the December dilemma” is also good way, and one many of us have taken over the years.

But here’s another way we can meet this morning’s opportunity: We can step back for a moment and look at what is actually happening in both communities on this very day and reflect on what our actions mean for us as and our relationship to our spiritual neighbors. For we Jews and Christians are spiritual neighbors. Not just strangers, though we are that, too, unfortunately, in our ignorance of each other. Not just enemies, though we have sometimes been that, as we are too well aware. But neighbors. Looking on our communities of faith as spiritual neighbors is the way I want to meet this morning’s challenge.

So let’s take that step back and ask, What is going on in our two faith communities today? This: We Jews begin reading the book of Sh’mot, the story of the Exodus, and Christians begin reading the story of Jesus Christ.

Here’s how I read this remarkable fact: When we neighbors are having a conversation over the fence, it’s not Christmas and Chanukah we should be comparing, but Christmas and Pesach, not Christmas tree cookies and latkes, but Christmas tree cookies and matzot. Hold that thought of Pesach; I promise I will return to it!

Why not Chanukah and Christmas? First of all: when you compare traditions, you can’t compare what is central to one with what is marginal to another. That, in anybody’s book, is a false comparison. To do this is to Christianize Chanukah, elevate it to a status of key story, which it may look like from an outside, Christian point of view, but which it is not, from an inside Jewish point of view. The Chanukah story is not in the Torah, not even in the Tanakh. The story, though based in historical facts, comes from an apocryphal text preserved by Christians. The Christmas story, by contrast, not only is in Christian canon, it forms part of the core of that canon, the gospels. Theologically speaking and religiously speaking, it’s misleading, not to mention inaccurate, to compare one community’s minor holiday with another’s foundational holiday.

Of course it is anthropologically correct to compare Christmas and Chanukah. If we stand outside as ethnographers and look at what different communities of faith are doing at this time of year, the darkest time of the year, near the solstice, we see a lot of similarity. There’s a common emphasis on miracle and focus on light entering the darkness of the world, a season of remembering the power of hope against hope. And of course, eating and singing and merry-making and gift-giving. These two celebrations share something else, too: the degeneration of authentic spiritual traditions into the one de facto universal religion: materialism and consumerism. There’s a lot to be learned by comparing Christmas with Channukkah from the outside.

When we stand inside the Jewish community of faith and inside the Christian community of faith and look around at what is happening, however, a more fruitful comparison of Christmas within Judaism emerges—not Chanukah and Christmas, but Pesach and Christmas. (My many years of living hard and deep within both traditions, first as a Christian and then as a Jew allow me this double-vision privilege.) So let’s take a look together.

What are we and Jews all over the world doing this morning in our synagogues and homes? Opening the book of Sh’mot. Reading the beginning of the story of the Exodus. Our founding story, the story of the origin, ruthless enslavement, and liberation of God’s people. And we’re reading this story on Shabbat, which we call “the first of the holy festivals celebrating our going forth from Egypt.” By the way, it’s interesting that this opening of the story in Sh’mot, Names, begins with listing the names of our eponymous father and his sons—“These are the names of b'nei Yisrael who came to Egypt with Ya’akov”(Ex. 1:1) but does not give the name of father of the central character in this story, Moshe; it simply calls Moshe’s father “a certain man of the house of Levi who went and married a Levite woman” (2:1). We have to wait until the next parashah (Ex. 6:20), when we are already in the thick of the action in Egypt, for the storyteller to give us the father’s name—and the mother’s. Why? I can think of two reasons. One, it is this son, his uniqueness, not his ancestry or his biological or earthly father who is key to this story—similar to what happens in the Jesus story, as we’ll see in a moment; and two, the story wants to highlight Moshe’s special relationship to God.

What are Christians doing all over the world this morning in their churches and homes? Opening the Gospel of Luke or Mark and reading the beginning of their founding story, the story of the birth, horrific death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and through him, the liberation of God’s people.

We won’t complete the story of Exodus until the spring, when we finish the book of Sh’mot and move on to Vayyikra, and when we celebrate Pesach and retell the story of our exodus and redemption. And Christians won’t complete the story of Jesus Christ until the spring, when they observe Good Friday and celebrate Easter.

But today, December 25, the 18th of Tevet, we are both at this same moment going back to our source, to our root, that from which we sprang as a people and that which keeps us ever greening; we're returning to our founding narrative, the master story that shapes and guides all that we see and know and do. A master story or founding narrative is the lens through which all other texts are read. We Jews and Christians both have incredible collections of diverse sacred texts that span thousands of years. What unifies them? Our way of reading them: through the lens of our founding narrative. (Read Michael Goldberg’s Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight if you want to follow up on this, though in a more polemical presentation.)

Listen again to what we pray before every Shabbat eve dinner: We praise and thank you for the gift of Shabbat, “the first of the holy festivals celebrating our going forth from Egypt.” Shabbat was given at creation; no one denies this. But we read it through the lens of the Exodus.

The same is true of our beloved siddur. Exodus is the golden cord that holds all these pearls together. Check it out sometime—I challenge you. For today, turn to page 119 in Siddur Sim Shalom, Al Ha-Nissim, the prayer the rabbis added to the Amidah for Chanukah. The rabbis who wrote and inserted this prayer took no sides in the contemporary debate whether Chanukah was a military miracle of the few against the many like that performed by the Maccabees or a supernatural miracle of oil like that performed by the prophet Elisha. They included them both, in the second paragraph and the last paragraph. The way forward for them, as the guardians of the Jewish way of living with God, was to seal Chanukah in our heart of hearts, and to do that they tied it to the Exodus story. This is what we read in the first sentence, and near the end of the blessing.

We thank Thee for the miraculous victories of liberation and deliverance which Thou didst effect for our ancestors in ancient days, during this season of the year.

In the days of the Hasmoneans, Mattathias ben Yochanan, the High Priest, and his sons, there arose against Thy people Israel a wicked Hellenic empire. It sought to make Israel abandon Thy Torah and violate Thy precepts. But Thou, in Thine abundant mercies, didst come to their defense in a time of trouble. Thou didst champion their cause; Thou didst vindicate their rights; Thou didst avenge the wrongs they endured. Thou didst deliver the strong into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few; the corrupt into the hands of the upright; the wicked into the hands of the just; and the arrogant into the hands of those who were faithful to Thy Torah. Thou didst establish Thy renown throughout the world; and for Thy people Israel Thou didst effect a mighty deliverance. Thereupon did Thy children enter Thy house. They removed the defilements from Thy Temple, and cleansed Thy shrine. They kindled festive lights in Thy holy courts, and they established these eight days of Chanukah in thankfulness and praise to Thy great name.

These are rabbinic allusions to the deliverance and the signs and wonders made public before the Egyptians and the whole world, in the Exodus. Chanukkah, too, is read through Exodus.

Just so the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ serves as the lens through which Christians read all their texts (including what they call the “Old Testament,” our Tanakh) and organize their prayer books and liturgies.

In this way, through this focusing of the lens, the details of the story of Exodus work their way into Jewish bodies and hearts and minds and spirits, as the details of the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Exodus work their way into Christian bodies and hearts and minds and spirits, so that when we are interpreting our own experience, our own lives, we read what happens to us and what we do through these stories. Think of how the Exodus narrative teaches us to exist in relation to our past, present, and future, to eternity—both communally and individually.

Let’s take one more step, one more look together. Granted our founding narratives are different, what can we learn by look at them together on this day, the beginning of the story of the Exodus, the beginning of the story of Jesus? Of course there are differences in these two founding narratives, though not necessarily the ones that spring most easily to our minds: both narratives are grounded in history; and both partake of myth just as much as history, the story of the Exodus and its wonders no less than the story Jesus’ birth and life and death. This is not a fruitful or accurate way to distinguish them from each other. But today I don’t want to rehearse their difference; I want to look at what they share.

Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism, like Pharisaic or rabbinic Judaism, our Judaism, did. Many of its texts can be interpreted as midrashim on texts in the Torah or Tanakh. Let’s keep this in mind as we look at the elements these two stories share.

In both founding narratives:

1. The Jews are oppressed by a foreign government: Egypt. Rome.

2. A particular ruler fears rebellion by the Jews and thus wants to kill all the male babies born to Jewish women: the pharaoh wants them drowned, Herod wants them slain.

3. A boy is born to his people and survives against great odds: Moshe, Yeshua.

4. Both boys have a humble beginning (symbolized by the lowly grasses of the fields and the waters) that focuses the reader’s attention on their dependence on God alone and their special relationship to God, not father and mother or any human shelter, the signal not only of their great humility but their closeness to God: Moshe a red basket, Yeshua a manger of hay. (I want to argue for a moment with the footnote in our Chumash that claims that this part of the Moshe story differentiates it from other hero stories, because Moshe is born humble and raised to great heights of Egyptian royalty, but then descends to the lowly among his people again, unlike other hero figures who remain elevated to glory. But is this so different from the hero story of Jesus, who goes from humble to royal status to humble as well? Both Moshe and Yeshua are spiritual heroes and guides who combine humility with a close relationship to the One Who Dwells in Glory. They are both living paradoxes of humility and glory that signal to the rest of us how to live with God in the world, and that is why we elevate them to special dignity in our communities: Moshe Rabbeinu, Lord of the Prophets; Yeshua the Anointed One, Our Lord. )

5. Both boys are saved by women and their cleverness: Moshe by five women, Meryam, Yocheved his mother, Shifrah, Puah, and the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh; Yeshua is saved by his mother—and later by the women who save his body after he is crucified.

6. Both boys grow up as outsiders to their biological families, men for whom family ties are not as powerful as their duty to the Lord—again to emphasize their closeness to God: Moshe in pharaoh’s palace, Jesus in the temple.

7. Both are reluctant leaders

8. Both grow up to perform miracles in public.

9. Both help lead their people from darkness to light, bring about the liberation of God’s people in a way that God’s mighty arm and signs and wonders are revealed.

Why am I making this list? Not to say, Hey, they plagiarized our story! Let’s sue them for copyright infringement! Not to say, Look, all paths are the same, so be a Jew, be a Christian, be a Whatever, it doesn’t matter. It does matter. The shape and feel and details of our stories make us who we are. It’s essential to know what your story is and to live out of that particular story. Who can live in an abstracted plot: some people were harming other people and a baby was born, and all the people were saved. Hardly compelling.

I want to be very clear here. I’m calling attention to what our two stories share, not to their ultimate sameness, as if one universal and monolithic truth existed out there somewhere, the pure truth, unadulterated by myth, stripped of all our story nonsense and accessible by those who are rational and modern or post-modern and who have no need for all this detail detail detail. And what these two founding narratives, whether one is a midrash on the other or not, share is this: Both are founding stories, saving stories; both guide and inspire and comfort us frail and fragile human beings as we labor to perform the task given to us by the One God:  to become fully human, to cast out fear, to bring light out of darkness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to lift up the downtrodden, to free the prisoner, to comfort the weary with a word in the morning, to create justness out of injustice, to transform evil into good, to turn indifference into welcome, ignorance into wisdom, hate into love, to act justly, love lovingkindness, and walk humbly with our God, to hallow the world, this world, for the Holy One to dwell among us.

Our story is not better than theirs. Nor theirs better than ours. Their story is not more full of hard-to-swallow miracles or “pagan” influences than ours and thus more worthy of contempt. Nor is ours. Our story is not the truth, while theirs is an obsolete myth. Nor is theirs the truth. These stories and our re-tellings of them, today and in our spring holidays, in our prayer books and liturgies, in our daily living inside of them, are gifts that keep pointing us to the One and show us how to draw that One into the world. The challenge to us as we travel our path through this world is not to keep looking to see how far ahead or behind our companions are, not to keep looking at what paths, different, unfamiliar, our neighbors may be taking; our challenge is to keep our hearts fixed on the Holy One who draws us all toward love and justice, mercy and truth, each in our own way. Our challenge is to “Love your neighbor; for your neighbor is like you.”

Shabbat shalom!