When Religious Holidays Lose Their Religion

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I am fascinated by the battle of the billboards near the Lincoln Tunnel.

The American Atheists, an atheist advocacy group paid $20,000 for a billboard that depicts a classic nativity scene with the text: “You know its a myth. This season, celebrate reason”.

The Catholic league has rebutted this sign with a sign of their own: “You Know It’s Real: This Season Celebrate Jesus”. Their billboard came in at $18,500.

This reminds me of the controversy over the bus signs that said: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. (See Seen On A Bus Ad In London: “There’s Probably No God…” and Humanists)

This particular controversy is a case where, in my opinion, pretty much everybody is wrong.

First, the atheists say “You KNOW it’s a myth.” How can one KNOW that something did not happen. It may not have happened and it may have happened. There is little evidence either way. So, it is disingenuous to claim that one can KNOW that it is a myth. And second, even if it IS a myth, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And third, even if it isn’t true that doesn’t mean that the religion has little or no value.

I expect more from atheists. If your platform is reason, you should use it. Don’t appeal to sensationalist Madison Avenue emotions. If reason is on your side, use it! They claim they are trying to get people to think. Telling people what they know does not get them to think.

The Catholics are no less guilty of overstating their position. “You KNOW It’s Real”? Seriously? Isn’t much of Catholicism based on FAITH? If it’s faith, you can’t know it! Further, if Christmas was about celebrating Jesus, I bet the atheists wouldn’t mind so much. But Christmas has become a secular day as much, if not more than a religious day.

The symbolism of the holiday are certainly not biblical (perhaps to the exclusion of the nativity scene). Red coats, flying reindeer, trees, ornaments, mistletoe, even gift giving was at one point banned from Christmas. It is hard not to see that the holiday has taken on many non-religious connotations and is mostly celebrated with traditions that are recent additions.

So, are the atheists waging a battle against religion? Or maybe just traditions that have acquired religious meaning? A little bit of both. But I think they have been spurned by the latter more than the former.

And is it so bad to have added all these non-religious customs to a religious holiday? Yes and no. I think that Christmas has become overblown as a non-religious holiday. Its symbolism is entirely anachronistic for a middle eastern holiday. Yes, Christianity began as a middle eastern religion. There is some religion left, but I think for most people, it is almost like Thanksgiving. An agnostic family holiday.

I know that I am torn about these kinds of additions in Judaism. Ashkenazik Jews have many non-essential traditions that give each holiday a certain sense of nostalgia. I don’t cherish these traditions the same way I cherish the mitzvos of each holiday, but they do mean something. At the very least, they are like an homage to our grandparents. There is meaning there too. But I am careful to distinguish for myself and my family and my congregation that there is a qualitative difference between observing a mitzvah and keeping a tradition.

On Chanukah there are two mitzvahs. They are to light a candle and sing Hallel. Presents, latkes, dreidel, fried foods, dairy foods are all traditions. And they are pretty recent traditions at that. I think it is important to keep that in perspective so as to not allow the non-essential elements of the holidays usurp the true meaning of the holidays. But I also find at least some value and meaning in those traditions that connect us with our past and give us an appreciation for my family’s heritage.

Link: CNN

  • Mike S.

    There is only one mitzvah? What happened to Hallel? Al HaNisim?

    • Fair enough. I’ll give you Hallel. But Al Hanisim is not a mitzvah. I
      will update the post.

  • Anonymous

    E. Fink – I think it is important to keep that in perspective so as to not allow the non-essential elements of the holidays usurp the true meaning of the holidays.

    I’m not sure if some of the “true meaning” parts of the holidays are things that were considered “non-essential elements” a hundred, a thousand, or two thousand years ago. In other words, I wonder if the holidays and their elements with true meaning also evolve with time?

    • I have toyed with that idea. I don’t think it is true. The practice of non-Temple Centric Judaims was codified at a point in history, by those with the authority to make it so. Those are the essential elements for us. We can’t undo them and nothing that we add on can approach that level of “essentialism”. If they are forgotten or discarded, it is not a big deal…

      • Anonymous

        But there are certain elements that have ever so slowly entered since then and have become essential. Head-covering for every male, for example. Or perhaps the tallit during davening. And there are probably plenty more examples.

        • Head covering for every male is for the Talmud.

          There may be some examples, but I think it is a flaw in our observance if we place the same level of credence on those practices as we do that which is mandated by the Talmud. If you’ve been listening to the Rambam class, you know that the Talmud was an attempt to codify “Torah SheBaal Peh” – the rules for performing mitzvos that were given at Sinai. That process ended with the closing of the Talmud.

          • Anonymous

            Head covering for every male is for the Talmud.

            Where? I looked (briefly) and couldn’t find it!

              • Anonymous

                That wikipedia article doesn’t support your thesis. In fact it explicitly says something close to the opposite –

                Originally, a head covering at other times for males was a custom, but it has since taken on “the force of law”

                And none of the sources listed there indicate that headcovering was universal for men in post-temple times, certainly outside of during prayer.

                • It was a Talmudic custom. Minhagim from the Talmud can take on the force of law. That’s PRECISELY my point! Recent minhagim do not.

                  • Anonymous

                    I’m still trying to find the source that it was a custom in the time of the Talmud. Doesn’t it say that one guy always kept his head covered? Seems like it became a custom after Talmudic times, and was then codified into law later. Much later, like AFTER the Rishonim. Does Rambam say you have to cover your head all the time, or just during tefillah?