The God Squad: What the rabbi loves about Christmas
When Father Tom Hartman and I were together as the God Squad, before his passing in 2016, one of our most beloved annual traditions at this time of year was for Tommy to write a column on what he loved about Hanukkah and for me to write one on what I loved about Christmas. I am left alone now to hold up my end. It is not a chore, but I do miss Tommy most around Christmastime and truth be told, I really do love Christmas and it is not just the trees, Santa and the music. I love the idea that this holiday for Christians celebrates the birth of Christ, which is not a name. Christ is a title. It means Messiah. You would probably suppose that as a rabbi I would not be one who wants to put the Christ back in Christmas. The opposite is true.
I love the fact that Christmas, when properly celebrated, revives for Christians the power of the miracle and mystery of the birth of the Messiah. Like most Christian beliefs, the belief in a Messiah descended from the line of King David who would bring peace on earth is a Jewish belief. The virgin birth and the resurrection were, of course, Christian additions to the core Jewish belief, and they are outside any version of Judaism (are you listening Jews for Jesus!). However, the idea of a human Messiah is a Jewish belief added to Judaism by the rabbis at the time of Jesus. The Bible speaks of a messianic time and a day of God, but it is silent on the idea that the Messianic Age would also include a Messiah. This is true despite all the eager attempts of evangelical Christians to find supposed references to Jesus in Isaiah’s “suffering servant”. That reference is to the entire people of Israel who will suffer for their sins, not a person who by dying would wipe away the sins of the world.
So let us get this straight. Jews believe (or should believe because it is in our sacred texts) that at some point in the future, a Messiah will emerge to defeat the forces of evil and usher in a time of peace. The rabbis also taught that this Messiah would bring the dead back to life so that they could also enjoy the glories of the end of time. That is why some orthodox Jews who have amputated limbs bury them in their grave before they die so that on the day of the resurrection of the dead they won’t be missing their left foot!
My favorite Jewish Messiah legend is that the Messiah will appear on earth as a leper at the gates of Rome waiting for some kindly person to stop and offer to bind up his wounds. After that act of kindness to the least of us, the Messiah would then announce himself (and I would add “or herself”) and begin the last war against evil at Armageddon. This is why I always give to beggars even though some friends and family constantly chide me about my gullibility to scam artists. Still, I give because I do not want to be the one who stiffed the Messiah and delayed the Messianic Age.
I am a big believer in Heaven, or as it is called in Judaism The World To Come, but I am not a believer in the bodily resurrection of the dead. It is just too phantasmagorical for me. However, I do believe that someday a Messiah will arrive. Perhaps riding a white donkey over the hills around the city of Safed in Israel, or perhaps sitting bundled and cold on the sidewalks of New York City. What I believe is that there must be an end to the coruscating evil in the world. There must be some hope in us that is strong enough to survive all the evidence of evil in the world. And if that Messiah turns out to be Jesus returning, then I will slap my forehead and join the chorus welcoming the King of Kings. However, if (as I do believe) the Messiah turns out to be someone who never knew and never was Jesus of Nazareth, then Tommy and a whole bunch of Christians will be looking up recipes for Hanukkah latkes.
What I believe most of all is that the name of the Messiah will not matter as much as people think. This Messiah wrangling should not be a debate about who got it right and who got it wrong. It should be the expression of a common hope that in the darkness of winter there is still a bright light of hope that our common history will lead to peace everlasting.
And that hope and that message and that miracle to come is why I love Christmas.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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