As I mentioned in my last blog post, I grew up knowing very little about Judaism or Jewish culture. In an effort to become more familiar with the religion, partially because of interning at the ISJL, but mostly just out of genuine curiosity, I’ve been taking advantage of the educational literature on MyJewishLearning.
I began seeing unexpected parallels between Jewish texts and traditions and other religions I’ve studied, even Asian religions (around topics like reincarnation!). With all of this on my mind, when I was chatting with Rabbi Marshal Klaven last week, I mentioned that a major aspect of my education has been studying and understanding how Asian traditions, particularly Buddhism, have understood peace and been used in peace-building efforts.
He insightfully replied: “That’s interesting, because we all think we are talking about and working towards the same thing when we talk about peace, but maybe we’re not” – implying that different religions not only have different understandings of how peace might be achieved, but also may well have different definitions of what peace actually is, as well.
I had never thought of this before, but it makes sense. The teachings of Jesus advocate a more active role in nonviolence, whereas Siddhartha Gautama (The Shakyamuni, or Historical, Buddha) advocates detachment from suffering and withdrawal from the earthly world. Of course, different types Buddhism eventually developed concepts that called for more active involvement in the world, such as practicing loving-kindness. But still the roots of the way these two religious traditions understand peace are radically different—does this difference affect their understandings of peace?
Recently for a class I was asked to read an article by Allan Solomonow that discussed the Jewish perspective on peace. Solomonow explained that, from the Jewish perspective, peace cannot be separated from truth and justice—that to have one of the three you must have them all. In order to understand this more solid definition of these three rather vague terms is in order. In my mind justice has always been, I think probably subconsciously, equated with violent retribution. To me, justice has always meant equal suffering on two sides of a conflict, rather than equal healing. For example, growing up I always thought of justice as a murderer receiving the death penalty. The word still holds similar connotations to me. As a result I often think of peace, which I often equate with mercy, as the opposite of justice. However, Solomonow explains the Jewish (religious) perspective as one that rarely advocates the necessity of violence. If this is the case, then I require a different definition of justice to understand the Jewish perspective on peace.
I’d love to hear how from all of you on this topic and how you understand the concept of peace in Judaism. Let’s keep learning together!
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While recently driving through one of those long rural stretches that blur the lines between Midwest and South, I saw a large billboard that said in cheery letters: “Happy Holidays!”
But the billboard featured an angry red cross-out, replacing the inclusive message with the strident proclamation: “ONLY MERRY CHRISTMAS HERE!” Let’s be clear: It wasn’t graffiti; it was part of the design.
The image included herein is a recreation. (Thanks, computer-magic.) I couldn’t take a picture of the actual billboard, because it was stationed beside the highway on which I was driving. Since I was driving, obviously, I couldn’t capture the image; normally, I might have stopped, but it was also nighttime, and raining with near-freezing temperatures, with snow and ice also threatened.
In other words, it was exactly the sort of December night where one might appreciate a nice, warm-and-fuzzy holiday wish, rather than a small town’s declaration that only one holiday was welcome there.
The sign bothered me.
The funny thing is, I am not bothered by religious Christmas signs in general. I actually understand the inclination to emphasize “the reason for the season.” Practicing, faith-driven Christians who want to spread the reminder of Christmas as a religious holiday make sense to me. After all, don’t Jewish people emphasize the messages and meanings behind Jewish holidays, too? Don’t rabbis and educators lament when Chanukah becomes “just about the presents”?
What bothers me is the aggressive exclusion of others. I wouldn’t have blinked at a sign that said “Keep Christ in Christmas.” That sign simply isn’t aimed at me. But a sign that slams other holidays does feel aimed at me. One that essentially shouts out down with happy holidays, Christmas is the only celebration allowed in these parts, seems hurtful and mean-spirited to me. (To say nothing of what the menorah in my trunk must have been feeling…)
What bothers me is the fear conveyed therein, and the notion of a “War on Christmas.” As one rabbi-friend commented when I posted a Facebook status about this billboard: “Isn’t the War on Christmas, like, SO last decade?” Apparently not.
What bothers me is the whole idea that it’s a seasonal zero sum game; the absurd notion that if all holidays are welcome, one in particular is threatened. Doesn’t that go against the love-thy-neighbor spirit associates with this season?
So I added something to my holiday wish list. I’m hoping for a deeper understanding that including everyone does not mean diminishing anyone. Saying “Happy Holidays” is a way of wishing someone whose practices you may not know a joyful time of year regardless of whichever holiday they will or won’t be celebrating. It is not said to replace Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanzaa – but to make room for them all.
So whatever holiday(s) you’re celebrating this season, may they be full of peace, and joy, and light, and with that I’ll say – to ALL - a good night.
Does this billboard bother you, too? Share your thoughts!
“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.