Post by Jewish Farm School Rabbinic Intern, Josh Boydstun – Reposted from Jewish Farmer's Almanac
As Chanukah draws to a close, we enter the month of Tevet (December 13, 2012-January 11, 2013). For many American Jews, this is a challenging time of the year. Christmas may seem ubiquitous, whether framed as a specifically Christian holy day or as a secular, commercial, all-American holiday. While some American Jews celebrate Christmas with relatives, others feel deeply alienated and alone. For many of us, December is the month when our difference and minority status are most pronounced.
However, American Jews are not the first to have struggled with what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan termed the challenge of “living in two civilizations.” The rabbis of Roman Palestine tackled this very issue in Avodah Zarah (“Foreign Worship”), the tractate of the Mishnah concerned with idolatry and relations with non-Jews. To ensure that Jews would not be even indirectly implicated in idolatry, the rabbis forbade business transactions with non-Jews during the three days preceding and following Roman festivals (M. Avodah Zarah 1:1-2). Among these idolatrous festivals were Calenda and Saturnalia, which the Babylonian Talmud defines more specifically: “Rav Chanan bar Rava said: ‘Calenda is eight consecutive days following the Winter Solstice; Saturnalia is eight consecutive days preceding the Winter Solstice.’” (T. Avodah Zarah 8a)
Immediately after Rav Chanan’s explanation, the Talmud offers an intriguing story about the origins of Calenda and Saturnalia:
The rabbis taught: When Adam, the first man, saw the daylight gradually decreasing [during the first Winter of creation], he said: “Alas for me! Perhaps because I sinned the world is darkening for me, and it is returning to a state of ‘unformed and void’; this is a death sentence decreed for me from heaven [for my transgression].” So he got up and engaged in fasting and prayer for eight days.
However, once he saw the Tevet Solstice and saw that daylight was gradually increasing, he said: “This is the nature of the world!” So he went and established eight festival days [i.e., Calenda]. The following year, he established as festival days these [i.e., the eight days of Calenda after the Solstice] and those [i.e., the eight days of Saturnalia before the Solstice].
He established them for the sake of Heaven, but they [i.e., non-Jews of future generations] established them for the sake of idolatry. (T. Avodah Zarah 8a)
What are we to make of this bizarre tale? First of all, it contains a strikingly humane concern. Adam—a brand new human being living in a brand new universe, with no knowledge of how it functions—sees the daylight waning and experiences a deep sense of terror and existential dread. He fears that the orderly natural world is disintegrating into a state of “tohu va-vohu” (“unformed and void”), the same Hebrew phrase used to describe the primordial state preceding Creation in Genesis 1:2. While this may seem like a comedic overreaction, we must remember that for those without access to light and heat—whether two millennia ago or today—Winter is a potentially life-threatening time. The rabbis of the Talmud appreciated this, and perhaps this is why they recounted a midrashic tale of hope and faith in the natural order. If comfort and survival are not guaranteed during Winter, at least we can trust in Spring’s inevitable return.
Second, the rabbinic view of Calenda and Saturnalia as corrupted versions of Adam’s festivals is particularly baffling. In a tractate devoted to distancing Jews as much as possible from the corrupting influence of idolatry, why claim any connection whatsoever between the idolatrous festivals of Rome and the holy sanctification of G-d’s Creation? Were the rabbis attempting to retain a monopoly over the sanctification of Creation? Was it easier to charge Rome with appropriating and perverting Adam’s Tevet Solstice than it was to admit that Rome had independently enshrined the Winter Solstice as a sacred occasion? If the latter approach risked putting the Roman god Saturn on the same level as the G-d of Israel, the former ensured that the G-d of Israel remained supreme.
The path of theological supremacy represented by the former approach may be useful under siege, occupation or exile, but it is of limited use to those of use committed to living as Jews in a pluralistic society. Rather, we need to formulate, refine and maintain strategies that enshrine our Jewishness without engaging in theological chauvinism that sees our G-d as better or in cultural separatism that demands disengagement from non-Jews during their religious holidays.
Even as the approach suggested by Avodah Zarah is obsolete and impractical for Jews in America, I would argue that it does offer us a kernel of meaningful relations with non-Jews. The common element that the rabbis recognize in both Calenda/Saturnalia and the festivals of Adam is the Winter Solstice. Likewise, many Christmas traditions actually preserve pre-Christian celebrations of the Winter Solstice: December 25 was the birthday of the Late Roman sun god Sol Invictus; gift giving was part of the Saturnalia festivities; and the Yule Log was a component of the Germanic pagan mid-Winter festival of Yule. Like the light-giving Yule Log, candles were an important component of Saturnalia, which some ancient sources describe as a “festival of light.” Many contemporary Christians light Advent candles in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Jews light candles on Chanukah, which straddles the months of Kislev and Tevet. And the relatively new African-American holiday of Kwanzaa features a candle-lighting ritual, wherein each candle represents one of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa.
The gods are different, the cultures and languages are diverse, and the worldviews may even be incompatible if not outright antagonistic to one another. However, what all of these holidays share is the goal of helping believers survive the shortest, coldest and darkest days of the year; of cultivating hope and trust in the face of uncertainty and fear; and of linking the individual, the community, the natural world and the Divine in a web of deep and vital meaning. Their common element is a belief in the natural world as a place of holiness and purpose, a sacred realm of seasons and cycles. If we can cultivate a Jewish environmental ethos—a system of values, wisdom, rituals and skills that enable us to better inhabit and steward the natural world—our Judaism will certainly be more fulfilling. It would also enable us to converse and cooperate even more effectively with non-Jews who are engaged in similar work in their own traditions. I can think of no better common ground than the Earth itself.