Crossing Borders: Jews and Christmas in America 2013

Crossing Borders: Jews and Christmas in America 2013

Over the past few days there has been a series of social media threads around the question what “we” make of the number of Jews and Jewish professionals who posted photos of themselves / their families on Facebook in front of a Christmas tree or who wrote posts on personal and public platforms about the wisdom of Christmas. I was one of those who posted – Christmas and Our Children.

The tone of the threads were uniformly of “concern” “worry” “anxiety” “annoyance” and even “anger” about the blurring of boundaries and the betrayal and erosion of Jewishness implied by Jews positively connecting to Christmas.

Jews proud of their identity and positive about Christmas! Yikes!

This is part of a global shift in consciousness in which millions and millions of people are moving from hard, fixed, and exclusive identities and group attachments to becoming what I call mixers, blenders, benders, and switchers.

The anxiety about the transformation in how people construct their identities and web relationships is understandable, especially for Jews, given the history of anti-Semitism and our minority status: minorities always fears being absorbed by the majority culture. And yet our world is indeed changing.? Technology and our slow but ever increasing psychological development have created an explosion of opportunity for people to meet across all backgrounds and consequently boundaries between religious and ethnic groups are more permeable than perhaps any time in history. The majority of Americans, including more than 80 percent of those less than 30 years of age, accept marriage across all types of boundaries, including ethnic and racial. We are creating identities and webs of relationships that do not fit our inherited boxes and labels.? And so the fixed ways of dividing “us” and “them” are breaking down and not surprisingly people deeply committed to their own groups and creeds are worried.

This shift in notions of group loyalty and exclusivity marks an uncharted world. Increasingly, we are customizing our identities — less in terms of some creed, dogma or group loyalty, and more to get a job done: to flourish as human beings.

This is unnerving stuff, and predictably, we have some religious communities becoming more conformist, exclusive, and intolerant, others becoming more diverse, inclusive, and syncretistic while most of us are just making it up as we go along.

Those of us who posted positively about the wisdom of Christmas do not see these changes as threatening the integrity of our faiths and groups. We are less concerned with creating good upstanding members of our group (theologically or sociologically) and more with offering wisdom and practice drawn from our tradition that is accessible, usable, and good enough to help “mixers, blenders, benders, and switchers” construct ever-changing lives that are more ethical, vital, and loving. And we are interested in learning the wisdom and practices from other traditions that actually get this job done.

Personally, these days, I worry about what I can include rather than exclude from the diverse treasure boxes of wisdoms and practices designed to add light and meaning, love, commitment, and depth to my personal life and my webs of relationships. I do recognize there will be cultural loss, about which traditionalists appropriately feel scared and angry, and which liberals and secularists tend to deny. But just as the most important part of a bowl is the empty space that can be filled, so this loss can open space for a new reality, one that holds the potential for a much richer and better world as we transcend the exclusivity of our creeds, dogmas, and tribes, and — here is the contemporary challenge — include the best of our inherited traditions. Learning from each other across borders, loving each other across boundaries, and building a world in which multiple traditions are engaged is far better for the planet than doing what our religions have too often done: demean, demonize and kill.

At their best, our ancient religious traditions know this, which is why they all teach we are one global family and yet worrying about being “digested” by some majority culture is a part of the human group experience.? But we are now transitioning into some next manifestation of this intuition, culturally and religiously, and just maybe something new is birthing regarding how we will be the artists of our own identity.

There are no roadmaps, which, paradoxically is the hallmark of a genuine spiritual journey.? But the more people love each other, the more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships, and the more we learn the best of each others insights and wisdom, the more discerning we will be about what we need to bring along with us from our traditions to help create a better world in this next era. Who we are in this drama of loving our own group and its wisdom and traditions and at the same time engaging, adapting, and resisting other wisdom traditions is a question each of us needs to ask ourselves. I am pretty sure at the end of my days that God I believe in (and I do not believe in the god you don’t believe in!) is not going to ask me – an 8th generation rabbi – if I was a good Jew.? But, I am pretty sure at the end of my life I will ask myself or be asked did I share my wisdom – Jewish treasures that I was gifted to be given at the highest, deepest, and most beautiful level and did I use everything available to me in this amazing open world to flourish as a human being.


Irwin Kula

Irwin Kula is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Irwin's writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life and a co-editor of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices. Irwin has appeared on NBC's The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O'Reilly Factor and PBS Frontline. Irwin also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.

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