The Parsha this week, Chayai Srah, gives us many of our traditions surrounding end of life, mourning and respect for our departed, including making sure that someone has a respectful burial and period of mourning. But, apart from these issues, I want to ask a question which you may not have considered lately. Or ever. ARE JEWS ALLOWED TO CELEBRATE THANKSGIVING?
I know—do we really have to analyze everything? Aren’t we on safe ground with Thanksgiving? Maybe Halloween is iffy, but isn’t Thanksgiving the ultimate secular holiday? Well, it’s not as clear as you might think. It turns out that the Thanksgiving holiday has been a source of debate for years in the Jewish community.
First, we probably realize that the Thanksgiving holiday mirrors, in many ways, the festival of Sukkot. It is, like Sukkot, based on ancient harvest feasts that were so typical of agrarian societies. In 1621, 90 Native Americans and 50 Pilgrims sat together to eat a meal and to thank God for their survival under truly awful conditions. The holiday was adopted as a national holiday in 1789, when George Washington was President. Some people saw Thanksgiving as a religious holiday; if that’s the case, then Jews would certainly not be able to participate in the celebration. But most people today maintain that Thanksgiving is a completely secular holiday. So why is there still a controversy?
Well, the basis for the controversy comes from a line from Vayikra, Leviticus, that reads as follows: God commands Moshe: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” So some scholars argue that we are forbidden to do anything that mirrors or imitates Gentile society. In other words, we are forbidden not only to avoid idolatrous customs but also anything that seems to copy customs of non-Jews. If that’s the case, then it would seem that Thanksgiving would be out of the picture.
Rabbis continue to disagree about this practice, though most now say that Thanksgiving is permitted for Jews. One scholar, a Rabbi Feinstein, pronounced that we are allowed to celebrate Thanksgiving as long as no songs are sung. Another, Rabbi Hutner, argued that Thanksgiving must be forbidden to Jews because the day is based on the Christian calendar, and that any holiday based on the Christian calendar is off limits for Jews. Some scholars argue that it’s not only idolatrous customs that are forbidden but also customs that are “foolish.” I guess I don’t see Thanksgiving as foolish, so I’m not sure how it applies. And if “foolish” is forbidden, what do we do with PURIM?
However you see this issue, I think that this is another example where Jews have so many different perspectives, even on something that seems pretty straightforward at first. But I like the idea of celebrating the holiday and making it our own. Maybe that means a kosher turkey. Maybe that means we bench after the meal. Maybe that means that we open our doors to people who have nowhere else to go. All of these are so Jewish and can give ANY holiday our own unique imprint. I will mention one idea that I read about and really liked: One Jewish writer suggested that we treat the Friday after Thanksgiving as a day of LISTENING rather than a day of shopping. This also can become a family tradition that has its roots in our history. Perhaps a remembrance of those who are no longer with us and no longer at our Thanksgiving table can be the order of the day. I can’t imagine a more Jewish way to celebrate a life and a holiday.
Rabbi David Grossman
Rabbi Joshua Grossman