Friday, November 20, 2015

Of Jews and Xmas Trees

The term ‘Cheder’ can conjure (sometimes negative) memories of a Sunday morning ritual of religious classes. While post-bar/bat Mitzvah siblings sleep-in; everything is calm at home, younger members of the family are whisked off at 9:45am as three - precious hours of Sunday morning are spent sitting with a Rabbi (or some other teacher) who is full of energy talking about Jewish stuff; while the children think about very different matters.

It was not always so. Pre-World War two, attending Jewish studies was a daily custom after school. Not just Sundays.

Dr Helena Miller[1] explains that the number of hours for supplementary education reduced dramatically in the post war years, with most children no longer receiving Jewish education for three or four evenings a week, but for only two or three hours on a Sunday morning.

What is more interesting, however, is the reason for the transition to Sunday: “Mirroring the Sunday school pattern of the Christian churches”.

Talking of taking cue from Christians,[2] a 2013 Pew Survey found nearly one out of three Jewish Americans —32% — said they had a Christmas tree in their home last year.

In comparison, only 22% said they kept kosher at home.

Numbers in the in the UK[3] are not far behind. In 1996 the Institute for Jewish Policy Research survey suggested that around one-in-four community members put up seasonal decorations in their homes.

In today’s Torah portion we read an interesting story, after twenty years in the home of Laban, Jacob’s father in law:

Jacob[4] set out ..He led away all his livestock, together with all the possessions that he had amassed.. to go to his father Isaac in Canaan…Meanwhile, Laban had gone off to shear his sheep, Rachel stole the Terfaim, idols that belonged to her father.

Four days later Laban catches up:

Laban said to Jacob, "What have you done? You duped me and led my daughters away like prisoners of war! Why did you flee surreptitiously, deceiving me and telling me nothing? Lama Ganavtem Elohai, why did you steal my gods?"

There are different reasons proposed as to why Rachel stole the Terafim. Some[5] suggest they had fortune telling capabilities, and this would delay Laban’s awareness as to the family’s whereabouts. Others [6] suggest that it was a necessary tactic to enable G-d to appear to Laban in a dream. Whatever the reason, Rachel eventually suffers as a result of this action. She sadly dies at the birth of Benjamin.

Of note however is the Zohar[7], which suggests that although Rachel was doing a noble act. She did cause her father to suffer, so when Laban charges: Lama Genavtem Elohai, why did you steal my Gods he is actually saying: You have taken the little support that I have.
Today the question might be asked in reverse, Jews living in a welcoming and secular society, can now ask themselves: Lama Ganevetem Elohai; What gods have we taken from everyone else at the expense of our own? Is it a Christmas tree? Chanukah is now on-par? Are we withholding parts of the wonderful Torah from our children, depriving them of their G-d[8]?

It is a charge to the Rabbinate, teachers and educators: Have you limited our relationship to G-d as an imitation of other faiths? Have you downgraded our deep and necessary connection with Hashem to an expression it finds on an interfaith platform?

This is why Saatchi’s – Mimi Dwek Hebrew School (we took out the word Cheder) – is on Tuesday evenings and is learner-centred. Ensuring that informal Jewish Education is a fun activity, one that is full of positive elements and observed as part of a continued journey; not a religious, dogmatic ritual.

This is also why (inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s message) we will have a large Chanukah booth and lighting on the first evening of Chanukah (6th December) at the very-well-Jewish-attended Holiday Fayre on St John’s Wood High Street. We will have Kosher food and all Chanukah supplies will be available.

Let’s enjoy our G-d.

[1] Supplementary Jewish Education in Britain: Facts and Issues of the Cheder system, Dr. Helena Miller, May 2008

[4] Gensis, 31, 17-30
[5] Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Abarbenel
[6] Meshech Chachmah
[7] Zohar 1, 164b
[8] Rabbi Norman Lamm, 1967

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