Seattle lights from the Space Needle... I love this city
“Don’t talk politics or religion in polite company.” Why? Because those subjects matter to us and therefore divide us, right? I’ll avoid politics for now, but with my first Christmas as a Jew fast approaching, I found myself awake at 5am this past Saturday writing this entry in my head. I’m NOT a morning person, so this must matter a lot. I’ll risk it.
I grew up in a secular family celebrating Christmas as ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Now as a new Jew I am relating both to my heritage and to the outsiderness that this season creates for minority religious cultures. I’m confronting the general attitude that ‘Christmas isn’t really a religious holiday for so many of us anyway so what is the big deal about having a Christmas tree in public places’, etc.?
Here’s what went through my mind when I should have been sleeping in on a Saturday morning: most humans desire sacredness in one form or another, even modern ones who are not affiliated with any religion. I’m not sure why, but I believe it’s true; my secular upbringing tells me there must be an evolutionary advantage. Then religion evolved to help satisfy that yearning, which I too feel, not as deeply as I suspect some people do, but more so than others. For the majority in the U.S., Christmas is as sacred as it gets, even for non-Christians not practicing other religions.
Jews do sacredness really, really well, which I’ll define for me as “putting special meaning onto a person, place, thing, or time in order to remind us of a greater vision, for who we are becoming or what we stand for.” Note that Jews are also reminded not to let sacredness spill over into idolatry, which I’ll define as letting the reminder of the vision trump the vision itself.
I got part of that understanding from a spiritual Jewish friend who also attends a non-denominational church on Sunday. He pointed out that the purpose of the rituals of Judaism is to help create presence. All those food rules are ancient reminders of a bigger intention. When Jason and I light candles on Friday evening, we are reminded to acknowledge that another precious week has passed. Each year when I say out loud my mother’s/father’s/grandmothers’ names in the presence of my congregation, I remember their lives and the difference it made when they were no longer living. In theory, I like the idea of having a prayer for everything, as we are told in “Fiddler on the Roof” (my fountain of knowledge about Judaism before contemplating conversion) but I know it won’t happen in practice. Note to self: I do want a prayer to say for when I notice that Mt. Rainier is out.
In my upbringing, family was sacred. Family dinners, birthdays, reunions, visiting cousins in the summer… And family was primarily what we celebrated at Christmas. Sacredness was not talked about as such because the word is so tightly linked to a belief in god, but in my definition it was present anyway. The only memory I have of emotionally connecting with the religious symbolism of Christmas was when I was seven months pregnant with Braden, and the pending miraculous birth of my child was somehow connected with ‘that other’ birth.
From my brief experience, Reform Jews hold lightly the part about belief in god, caring more about the practices that create sacredness than about defining who or what god is. With my family and UU religious background, this is comforting. Personally, I’ve come to the definition of god as the part of the human condition that we aspire to, that we are growing in to, and as the vision of what we want to become as humans, full of love, compassion, and justice. So, maybe god is what we are evolving toward even as human history has shown periods of ‘devo.’ I’m intrigued by the idea that religious belief throughout the few millennia of history might be snapshots of our various understandings of human potential. Wow. I can just imagine what some of you are thinking now. Keep the rolling eyes to yourself.
Ironically, my first Christmas as a Jew coincides with two brothers bringing their families from far away to join the other three sibs in the Northwest. It is precious, sacred even, when all five of us and our families can be together at one time in one place. I acknowledge the need for a Christmas tree in the home where presents get opened on December 25th, and my sister-in-law had the brilliant suggestion to celebrate (and learn more about) the traditions of Hanukkah at dinner that night. Yay! More latkes!