I have a question regarding a charitable endeavor my shul is involved in. For many years, we have hosted homeless guests (from a nearby shelter) for a week in our building. About three years ago, we started taking them in during the week of Christmas. Our homeless guests are non-Jews, and we have had a Christmas tree placed in our building for them. We have even brought in a "Santa Claus" to pay a visit to the children. As we are a Conservative congregation, there are, naturally, members who oppose the tree and other signs of Christmas in the shul building. I am one of those who also dislike the practice, however, I continue to volunteer to care for our guests. But I wonder, are we going too far, in terms of the Christmas celebrations? Our rabbi states that we shouldn't take offense because, after all, many of the symbols connected with this holiday are from pagan origins, rather than being specifically connected with Jesus. Personally, I view that (pagan symbols) as being just as bad, perhaps even worse!
It is my opinion that we should go back to hosting the homeless on a week other than that involving the Christmas holiday. This would solve the problem about causing offense to some of our more traditionally-minded congregants (regarding the tree and Santa). I was wondering what your take on this situation might be.
An interesting question, to be sure, but a sad one as far as I am concerned.
First of all, I commend you and your congregation for doing a wonderful and charitable deed by helping these unfortunate people. That is certainly very commendable.
But I don't think that your act of charity should be at the expense of violating the sanctity of your temple. A Synagogue, or Temple, represents to us a place of great Holiness, in which we remember the great Temples in Jerusalem of old, and look forward to their rebuilding speedily in our days. That temple was a “Place of worship for for all Peoples” (Isaiah 56:7), meaning not, G-d forbid, that crosses and Christmas trees and Buddhas etc were brought in, but that all humans will be invited to worship the one and only God, the God that we Jews believe in. We welcome all others, we wish to help them, and bring them close to God, but not by helping them to celebrate the holidays of other religions.
Furthermore, having a Christmas tree in the synagogue cannot but be confusing, at best, to the congregants, especially to the children. (I would assume that many of those children already wonder why they do not have a Christmas tree at home; try explaining our different attitude when they see a Christmas tree in the temple!) Whether or not a tree is really religious or pagan is beside the point – it is clearly a symbol of Christmas, and does not belong in the Temple. In addition, you make an excellent point that paganism was a far worse form of idolatry than Christianity, as it is not at all clear that Christianity is idolatry for non-Jews (it is for Jews – I refer you to an exhaustive treatment here by a conservative scholar), while it is absolutely clear that paganism is.
It seems to me that the easy alternative would be to pick a different week, as you suggest. The more challenging, but ultimately very worthwhile alternative would be, in my view, to clearly welcome these people as a Jewish institution, with very Jewish themes in place (Chanukah menorahs if it is Chanukah, etc) . Make it clear to them that we are not trying to proselytize, but that at the same time we are proud of our heritage and our tradition, and welcome them to experience it at this “Holiday” time.
If they are offended by that, so be it. My guess would be that we would win more friends and respect for clearly standing for who we are, and from that position, sharing our kindness with others.
What an interesting question! You would solve the problem by moving your guests to another week. This is certainly a possibility you can pursue.
However, should your shul continue to host the homeless guests during Christmas, then I would encourage you to continue the practice of having a Christmas tree and bringing in a Santa Claus for the children. This is a great way for the entire shul community to learn the value of “hachnasat orchim,” welcoming guests in to one’s home. By making your guests feel comfortable during their holiday, you are proving yourself to be exemplary hosts.
I fully appreciate that it is disconcerting to see a Christmas Tree and a Santa Claus in a shul. I would not advocate frying up some bacon in the shul kitchen as a way of welcoming guests since this would clearly be violating Jewish law in a Jewish space. The issue of a tree and Santa in a shul revolves around the principle of “morit ayin,” – a strange thing for the eye to see. Yes, this is strange. However, the teaching opportunity here is great. The rabbi or shul president can write a piece in the shul bulletin or blog teaching about welcoming guests and that the shul is doing a mitzvah by doing so. In addition, signs welcoming the guests and pointing out the Christmas tree for their enjoyment would also make the purpose of the tree clear to all who enter the building.
To volunteer to host these guests during a week when many social service agencies are short staffed is a true mitzvah. Jews can step up and help this week because we are not celebrating the Christmas holiday. For us to be able to help other celebrate their traditions is a blessing and a mitzvah. I would hope others would do the same for us.
What a wonderful question. First, let me say that what your synagogue is doing is a wonderful mitzvah. You are involved in pikuach nefesh - saving a life, hachnasat orchim -welcoming the guests, as well as feeding the hungry, homing the homeless and being a living example of the Prophets.
The issue of the Christmas tree is irrelevant in this context. It matters not one whit if it is a pagan symbol or not. It is not idolatry, there is no violence involved and the very fact that you can embrace your non-Jewish neighbours and welcome them into your home - yes, even with the Christmas tree - can do nothing but harbor and engender good feelings toward the Jewish community. It is no different than welcoming the Church to pray at the synagogue when their chapel floods or when a tornado hits. You are doing for neighbors as they would do for us, God willing.
Don't make a big deal about the tree. Doing so could very well ruin all the goodwill you have created. That is much more important than a few off-put temple members who, one has to wonder why, are really making a big deal out of such a small thing.
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