Shabbat Vayigash Thanksgiving and Religious Freedom
This Thursday, we will have the unusual opportunity of almost literally, having our cake and eating it too—or we should say, having our latkes and eating Turkey too.
Most commonly, we see Chanukah fall in line with the Christmas season, and we have those famous discussions about the Christmas-Chanukah dilemma some people have, especially when there is a mixed marriage. Do we have a Chanukah bush or an eight branch fir tree so that we don’t feel left out?
This time, we have the first day of Chanukah falling in line with Thanksgiving instead. The last time it happened was in 1861, but it didn’t become an official national holiday till 1863, so that doesn’t count. The next time the first day of Chanukah will coincide with Thanksgiving, according to one mathematician, will be Thursday, November 28, 79811—we should all live so long. It happens to be this way because on the Jewish calendar, the holidays shift by a month, and Thanksgiving, on the Gregorian calendar, shifts by a week. In addition, our calendar loses about 4 days in a millennia. Very simply, after some 70,000 years, the calendar will shift enough, that Chanukah will appear once again, in time for Thanksgiving.
Now, if I have you in a state of anxiety, I have been assured that if we consider only the first night, instead of the first day, then we improve our odds of celebrating it again considerably—as soon as 2070 and again 2165. Not so bad.
However, the wonderful thing about Chanukah and Thanksgiving coinciding in the USA is how wonderfully compatible these two events are. Thanksgiving is universal, for all Americans, not just for one religion, so it is immensely inclusive. At the core of the original Thanksgiving is the story of the Pilgrims setting foot at Plymouth Rock and then celebrating, together with their neighboring Indians, a first Thanksgiving Day after their first summer harvest. These Pilgrims identified themselves with the ancient Israelites and they were seeking what the Maccabees were seeking—the right to worship in accordance with their faith and beliefs.
Sometimes, we take this premise for granted, that we live in a country in which we are free to be as Jewish as we want and our neighbor can be as Baptist or Catholic or Muslim or Hindu—or nothing at all.
Look at the story of Joseph and his brothers. In this Torah portion, Vayeshev, he is sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers. He goes down, he goes up, and he goes down again at the very end, when his bosses wife taunts her husband” You brought this Hebrew slave to abuse me”. She is very adamant about him being a Hebrew.
When Joseph, now the Viceroy of Egypt , holds a banquet for his brothers, the Egyptians eat separately, because it is a toevah, an abomination, to eat together with a Hebrew..
For the next 35 centuries, worldwide, we have the pattern of one group refusing to eat with another or have them live in the same neighborhood because it is a toevah, a disgusting act. It is not just a Jewish tragedy-- it is a human tragedy--we could not tolerate differences of race or creed.
It goes on till today. Catholic Croatians could not live with Orthodox Serbians, Muslim Azeri cannot live with Christian Armenians, Hindus and Sikhs have trouble maintaining the peace in the Punjab. How long did it take to get an Irish Catholic sit down with an Irish Protestant in Northern Ireland? I don’t even need to rehash Jewish history.
In these United States, we Jews can breathe a sigh of relief, because we have had a solid line of defense around us, on the basis of which we, and Catholics, Quakers, Mormons, Baptists, and others have been able to live in relative peace for two centuries. I challenge anyone to come up with a comparison for religious harmony, bumpy as it may have been, for so long a period in any country as ethnically and religiously diverse as this.
We have had, to our good blessing and fortune, a founding document that has the status of “sacred” with Constitution and with it the Bill of Rights, whose first line is: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
How this line is defined is often vague. For example, Chabad may put up a Menorah on a public park in Beverly Hills, but only if there is a Christmas tree alsoto it.
On the other hand, I recently purchased a book of stamps, and only as I began to paste them on to my mail, did I notice that each one was a Christmas scene with Santa Claus. Do you appreciate the irony of receiving a letter from your Rabbi and Santa Claus?
The courts have ruled that stamps with pictures of Santa Claus or the Madonna and child are artistic works, not “an establishment of religion" In fairness, we have seen Chanukah stamps and Eid Al Fetr Stamps.
These are not the beginning and end of religious freedom. There are far heavier problems than a postage stamp.
We need to ask what this First of the Bill of Rights meant.
This Bill of Rights was framed and designed for a society that was and in great part still is, in influence and spirit, Protestant Christian in its origins, roots, and flavor, and it has influenced Jews and Catholics as well. That is part and parcel of American society.
However, a society is not the same as a nation-state. The Protestant Christian tradition in society did not make the United States of America a Protestant-Christian or even Judeo-Christian state.
Ask our founding fathers. They did every possible to put a distance between themselves and any semblance of a Christian state.
In 1796, the United States declared in a treaty with Tripoli, a Moslem state: “The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." That declaration (plus a show of courage and bravado and a lot of bribes, true) stopped the Barbary Pirates from attacking American ships. That was in 1796, four years after the Bill of Rights was accepted.
One of the most profound documents that described then nature of this new nation was a letter by President George Washington to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island. The head of the congregation there, Moses Seixas, sent the new President a greeting in advance of Washington’s visit to the city. While the Jews there were welcome by their Christian neighbors, they did not yet possess full equality under the law. The head of the community encouraged the new President to expound upon this new government, and, in return, the President copied the expression of religious liberty almost verbatim from the Jewish letter he received:
"Happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
He then ends with these words:
“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
It’s appropriate that he quotes the Bible in order to make a statement about religious rights. “Everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington used that quote form the Prophet Micah some 50 times in his correspondence, so you can understand how strong an impact Biblical language had on the founding fathers, not to found a religious state, but to found a religious people, in the sense of moral and virtuous, tolerant and fair.
When Thomas Jefferson framed the right to freedom of religion in the in the Virginia State Constitution, he had in mind the rights of very devout Baptists, and he included, in his words, "Jew and Gentile, Christian and Mohamedan, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination."
Jefferson explained himself to these very pious Baptists, on their behalf, against the attempts to suppress them by the mainstream Protestant establishment of its day:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should" make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and state."( Danbury Baptist Association, 1802).
Note that this concept, of a wall of separation, was warmly greeted by Christians who sought protection from fellow Christians.
Why were such individuals as a Washington or a Jefferson concerned about this wall between Church and State? Why was this so crucial for them?
We tend to forget history. Not we Jews alone suffered, but, in Europe, all religions beliefs suffered in the name of God. Inquisition, the Thirty Years War, Calvinist versus Lutheran, Dominican versus Capuchin versus Jesuit, Anglican versus Presbyterian, without end. The one great driving factor in settling this continent was the burning desire to get away from all the bloodshed and intolerance of Europe.
Even with the constitutional guarantees, our rights did not come to us on a silver platter. Many state constitutions opened office to believing Protestants only; Maryland did not allow Jews to hold public office till 1826, and North Carolina, not until 1868.
These rights were hard won-not just for us Jews, but for everyone-Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, and atheist.
Where, we may ask, is the right place for religion in American society? To speak for freedom of religion is not to speak for the silencing of religion. Just as much as we hear of preachers on the far right calling for a Christian State, we hear those on the far left calling to obliterate every reference to religion. Does religion have a voice? Does it have no voice?
Please keep in mind that the full text of the first amendment specifies that congress make no law "prohibiting the free exercise thereof", that Congress may not interfere with the free expression of our faith.
This country therefore, properly gives freedom to religion and religious organizations to function. Religion's case is best protected and advanced under the overall principal of each individual's freedom of conscience, and religious institutions are stronger here, in the free market-place of ideas, than when used and abused by the machinery of government.
Do religious institutions not have a say in the running of this country? Does not a bishop, Rabbis, or reverend have a legitimate voice? Very much so.
Religious leaders have the obligation to give their perspective to their adherents, so that they, as citizens, can vote their conscience on a great variety of issues. That same obligation is true of religious thinkers on both the right and the left. (What the IRS considers tax exempt status is a whole other ball-game, of course.)
Do we need a regeneration of spirit in this nation? Of course. We are a demoralized nation in many ways, facing an economic crunch, facing a radically changed picture both at home and abroad. Preachers can preach civic virtue and justice all day long. Our problem is that we are fragmented as a society—we, as Americans. It is not that we have no faith. Most people have a faith in something. It is that the faith we may claim to have does not draw us to be part of a greater whole, a community, a congregation, a church or synagogue. Here is the greatest challenge for religion today.
This year, as we celebrate Chanukah and Thanksgiving together, let us take the time to appreciate that it was the depth of faith that enabled us as Jews to survive to this day and it was that same depth of faith that enabled this society to open its doors to all. We can celebrate that next years, and the following years, without having to wait till 79811.
Happy Chanukah and to all Americans, Happy Thanksgiving.