Jews and Trees

The title of this blog post might lead you to believe that I am jumping the gun on the Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day) holiday. But actually I have been thinking a lot about Jews and trees after reading Gil Mann‘s wonderful article about Jewish people putting up Christmas trees. Gil’s article has been republished in several Jewish publications, but I read it first in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle today. Gil opens his response to “Should Jews Have Christmas Trees?” as follows:

Should Jews have a Christmas tree in their home? One thing is clear, quite a few do!

How many? In a list of 35 cities in the North American Jewish Data Bank, in most cities, 20% to 30% of the Jewish households say that they “always, usually or sometimes” have a Christmas tree. Here are a few examples: Washington D.C. 27%, Philadelphia, 23%, St. Louis 22%, Los Angeles 20%, and Detroit 15%.

A Christmas tree in a Jewish home has been one of the hottest topics in emails people have sent me over the years as a Jewish advice columnist on AOL and now on my own website, beingjewish.org.

Why so much interest in this topic? Jewish demographers ask because they want to know, in a Christian society where Christmas is pervasive, how Jews react to and assimilate into the larger culture. For these researchers, having a Christmas tree is something of a barometer of Jewish identity, assimilation and the impact of intermarriage.

The many people who have emailed to me asking about the appropriateness of having a Christmas tree are also essentially grappling with questions of assimilation and Jewish identity. Specifically, they are asking whether and how Jews should celebrate Christmas?

Gil MannI agree with Gil (right) that this is a hot topic for interfaith families. The litmus test interfaith couples seem to use in establishing whether their family has a “Jewish home” is whether they put up a Christmas tree. For Jewish people who have converted to Judaism from Christianity (or are in the process of converting), this is also a very delicate subject. While many converts are able to bid farewell to their Christian past and all Christian theology, it is often the Christmas tree that is the hardest tradition to forgo.

The statistics are revealing. Almost 30% of Jews have a Christmas tree? So many people see the Christmas tree as an innocuous, innocent holiday ritual with no religious significance. However, as Gil Mann points out in his article, “the star that adorns the top of these trees is meant to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem which marked the birth of the messiah Jesus. I see this as a very religious [symbol].” I have also heard that the actual tree is symbolic of the wooden cross.

Gil doesn’t address the issue of Santa Claus, but I think this is a separate matter. The Christmas tree is brought into the home and makes a statement about the religious values of the home during the holiday season, whereas getting your children’s photo taken on Santa’s lap is closer to being photographed with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. True, Santa represents Saint Nick, but he has come to be more of a cartoon figure in our modern society.

When I asked my son if he knew that his buddy and classmate at the Jewish Community Center Preschool was not Jewish, he responded that he did. I asked him how he knew that. He responded that his friend’s father had picked him up one day from school and told him to hurry because they were going to see Santa Claus at the mall. I didn’t have the heart to tell my son that his dad, the rabbi, sat on Santa’s lap too when he was a kid!

I like the way Gil Mann closes his article with advice from Joel Grishaver:

What Jews should accept and adopt from the dominant culture is at the root of the Christmas tree question. My personal response for myself and my children is advice I heed from Jewish educator Joel Grishaver. We have gone to Christian friends and celebrated their holiday with them in their home. In turn, they have come to our home to celebrate Passover and other Jewish holidays.

Going to a friend’s home for their holiday is similar to attending a friend’s birthday party. I can enjoy their celebration even though I know it is not my birthday party. In this case, they are celebrating Jesus’ birthday. My children understand this and respect our friends’ celebration of his birth.

We happily wish our Christian friends and neighbors a Merry Christmas in their celebration. In fact, I love Christmas, Christmas music and the holiday spirit. Still in our home, we do not celebrate this birthday or have a tree because this is not our party. That’s OK with me because as a Jew, I have plenty of Jewish holidays to celebrate and I am delighted to share our parties with my non-Jewish friends and neighbors.

Gil Mann has a lot of great advice about these thorny issues (he first tackled the Christmas tree issue five years ago). He has really made a name for himself on the Web with his candid responses to thousands of “Ask the Rabbi” questions (even though Gil is not a rabbi). His recent book, “Sex, God, Christmas and Jews: Intimate Emails about Faith and Life Challenges”, has proven to be a great resource for Jewish educators and rabbis like me. My review of his book can be found on my website.
Bottom line on the trees? No, Jewish homes should not have Christmas trees. Seems pretty simple, but nothing is simple anymore.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller