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When We Need Joy

18/03/19 12:47:35 PM


Purim, 1881

Oy, do we need Purim this year!  

Like so many other texts of our tradition, the Purim tale is one of survival and victory over oppression.  We have our heros, Mordechai and Esther (and some would argue Vashti), who through creativity and strength manage to save their people and allow them to practice their faith in freedom.  In celebration of the day, we retell the story with great joy, cheering our heros and drowning out the name of Haman with noisemakers. We share treats, and give gifts to people in our community, never forgetting to care for those in need.  It is a holiday that is not meant to be taken seriously, and as we dress up in our masks and have a few sips of wine, we are given permission to let down our guard and simply enjoy life.

Yet Purim also holds a profoundly powerful message for us, and in the midst of all the joy, masks and treats, it is also a deeply religious day.  As is often pointed out, the Purim story is one of the few texts in the Tanach in which the name of God is not mentioned (the only other is Shir HaShirim, the song of Songs).  Yet, our tradition tells us that God is part of the story in a very clear and powerful way, that the heroic acts of the people, the strength and compassion of Esther, Mordechai and the Jews are signs of the work of God.  This idea of the “hester panim”, the concealed face of God, appears through the actions of all of the people in the Purim story.

Purim reminds us that we are put on this earth to do “Godly” work, and that our story and the story of our people depends on us.  The most profound acts of redemption and the events of our day to day life and relationships are dependent on our actions and deeds.  We should never give up on our own role in bringing hope to our world.

And there is another important message in the story of Purim.  Near the end of the book of Esther, as we celebrate our victory, we are told:  And the Jews experienced light and happiness, joy and honor” (Esther 8:16).  We can and should look towards a redeemed world, where compassion, love and healing rule over evil and hatred.  Yet, as the Book of Esther reminds us, in the midst of our hard work, we must also make time for joy and celebration.  This is the joy that will guide us through the tough times once the light of Purim has faded away.

These powerful words which we read at the end of the Book of Esther are also repeated every week during the Havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat, the ritual of separation.  As the Day of Rest, Shabbat is seen as a taste of the world to come-- a messianic future, of peace, of compassion and of joy that will fill our world. As it we leave Shabbat, we rededicate ourselves to the task of not only fixing the brokenness in the world, but also creating more joy.  After these words from the Book of Esther are said in Havdalah, we say ken tihiyeh lanu, “may it be so”, expressing our personal and communal hope that we will make it to this place of joy and love--each and every week. 

So as we celebrate Purim this year, let us grab hold of the sense of joy and celebration and take it with us the rest of the year.  Like the sweet spices of Havdalah, this joy is will help guide us through life and inspire us to enjoy even more the beautiful world in which we live.  This is how we move down the path of redemption and this is how we can start to build a more compassionate and more joy-filled world. Hag Purim Sameach, a happy Purim, and may it be filled with enough happiness to carry us through another year!

Vayikra-It's Not Meant to be Easy

12/03/19 12:03:42 AM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

From the Dorshei Emet Weekly Newsletter 3/12/19

Vayikra, Leviticus was never meant to be an easy book to read.  While it is the central book of the Torah, both in a physical and spiritual sense, it is in no way the most straightforward.  There are no exciting family stories to relate to, no new and exciting characters to meet, and definitely little in the way of movie ready narratives to read. Instead, much of the book describes, in gory detail, the rules for the “korbanot”, the sacrifices, both animal and plant, and goes through the intricate choreography of  each kind of offering.

From the olah, the “burnt” offering, to the mincha, voluntary grain offering, the peace offering, the “sin” offering and the “guilt offering”, the asham.   The reasons for each offering are complicated, and beyond the descriptions, even the best of us read this text and ask ourselves how on earth any of it is relevant today.  It is not just modern readers that find this to be a difficult text, in fact the Talmud (Brachot 18b) says that studying the laws of Leviticus is like “slaying a lion” since it it a so complicated, detailed and seemingly impenetrable.  

We can be thankful that there are no longer animal sacrifices, but (and this is coming from your vegan rabbi), we are missing out on something very important if we fully gloss over this important part of our communal past.  Yes, as we know, prayer replaced sacrifice in our tradition. We now gather together and offer words instead of burning blood and flesh when we want to give thanks. We do acts of repentance instead of slaughtering our livestock, and we study Torah, argue about issues and listen to educational lectures instead of heading to the Temple to let the priest do the dirty work for us.  But is life really this easy?

I would say our lives are actually quite messy.  They are filled with very real pain, and suffering.  Often there is great joy and sometimes horrendous tragedy.  We have the needs and the emotions that we let show, and we have our inner feelings and desires; the jealousy, the passion, the enmity and shame that we often don’t let out.  A “sanitized” religion of polite prayer and song at its best can provide a very real comfort and support, but we have to remember that this is only part of what our tradition was meant to give us.

In an age of convenience and easy comfort, we need to be reminded that Judaism was not necessarily meant to be easy.  The description of the sacrifices in Leviticus were meant to shock us, and remind us the power of life and death. The detailed laws of the offerings were meant to remind us that giving to others and fixing the brokenness in the world is not just a bit of volunteering here and there, or a quick protest march.  It instead necessitates a deep and very real giving of our best selves and the risk of leaving feeling broken and imperfect, covered with a bit of “blood” from our sacrifice.

Leviticus reminds us that Judaism is so much more than what we say, what we pray and what we think and believe.  Life demands that we act, that we offer our best selves throughout our deeds and our work. Even more we know that sometimes we may even have to do the thing that we fear, and push ourselves to our limits to make things whole once again.  Leviticus may be tough to read, but in some ways it may describe the essence of Judaism, and the realities of life, better than anything else in the Torah.


Songs of Protest-Parshat Beshalach

21/02/19 11:39:01 PM


Parshat Beshalach--Shabbat Shira Dvar Torah from 5777

Of all the countries in Europe, Estonia is not the largest, and clearly not the most well known.  A small country across the sea from Finland and Sweden, and bordering Russia on its East, Estonia is definitely not on most people's list of places to go on a vacation. They have an immensely complicated language, and are known for the growing technology center, and as the creators of Skype. But what really makes Estonia incredible is its music, or more specifically its songs.  In this tiny country with a population of a little over a million, they have one of the world's strongest cultures of groups singing and folk song, rivaled only in numbers of songs by Ireland. Nearly everyone sings in some formal way, in choirs, in school, in churches, or in the popular song festivals that are held throughout the year.  Once every few years, there is a massive festival --sometimes as large as 100,000 people, a tenth of the population--they can see choirs of up to 30 thousands of signers, of people of all generations, and backgrounds singing together with pride the songs of their people.

But what makes the Estonain songs so powerful were not the numbers, but how they managed to use their music to fight back against the endless powers which had tried to stop their independence.  In the 20th century, there were the Germans and then the soviets in 1940. The Soviets began to Russify the country and try to prohibit Estonian language and culture. But the Russians didn't expect the power of music to be the weapon that would eventually help win Estonian independence.

After many years of only mildly successful resistance in September 1988, the Popular Front of Estonia organized a rally at the song festival grounds in Tallin.  While the movement expected a large crowd, at most tens of thousands of people, amazingly over 300,000 people came. This was about 1 in 3 Estonians. In this amazing event, as people looked around the crowd with Estonian flags flying rapidly, they sang.  They didn't sing the Soviet songs that they had been forced to for decades, but the sang with pride the folks songs of their people, including the unofficial anthem of their people “Estonian I am, and Estonian I will be, as I was meant to be.” According to many of the participants, this event and the power of singing with one voice left an emotional power that held strong for the next few years, and Estonian fought for their independence.  For over 50 years the Soviets had taken away their land, their culture and their freedom of speech. But they could not take away the songs that had been passed down throughout the generations. As one participant in the revolution said: “We had no weapons but singing, being together, singing together, this was our power.”

Here were are on Shabbat Shira, once again recalling as a community the story of our people’s journey from Egypt and across the sea of reeds.  As we learned last week, this was a journey with an unknown destination and with an even more unsure people. The people had said “And we do not know with what we must worship God until we arrive there.”  Yet while the Israelites still have many years of wandering before they reach their destination, we see that they have learned how to give thanks for their blessings.

Standing at the edge of the sea of reeds, looking ahead to an unknown future and looking with an odd sense of familiarity and comfort at their slavery past, the sea splits the Israelites sing.  

“And Israel saw the great hand, which God had used upon the Egyptians, and the people feared God, and they believed in the God and in Moses.  

אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־משֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה

Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is God; “

As I mentioned last year at this time, according to the commentaries, this song was the most free flowing and clear song that could have possibly been sung.  

And looking more closely, it wasn’t simply the fact that they sang so beautifully and with such a communal ease that was incredible, but we also are told that this was the first true shira, the first true song that was ever sung. The Midrash says that from the moment of creation, through all of the many other joys and challenges that they Israelites had experienced, there may have some short jingles, some brief verses, but never a song.  Something about this experience gave the people a level of inspiration to do something entirely different, to look up to the heavens and to each other and sing--sing song so powerful that everyone, even babies in their mother’s wombs felt impelled to join in.

Yet we are also told that that when the Israelites sang, this was also a sign of acceptance and of being able to finally put everything--their slavery, their past, the mystery of their future in perspective.  The Shemen ha Tov points out that the root of Shira is Yashar, straight--that this song was a way of straightening out the highs and lows of life, and bringing it all together and finding a sense of equilibrium from it all. It is pointed out that this is why the entire parsha is called Shabbat shira, even though the song is only a part of the story.  The sea splits and they are happy, but then there is no water, and they are low again. The water is sweetened, they are happy and then there is no food and they complain. This is of course like life, there are high points, the mountains, and there are low points, but we hope and know that things often do work themselves out and it is then that we can sing.  Even when we look back at an imperfect life, even when we look around and see a truly imperfect world, we can still look around at our fellow life travelers and sing.

We all know that song and music has the power to inspire and bring us together as a community.  We sing our prayers when we gather together for Shabbat services, and we also sing together with excitement at a concert where we all know the words.  We sing happy birthday to celebrate another year of life, and we sing song of mourning when that life is taken away. Over the past few weeks, I have been inspired to see people once again singing in protest singing songs of peace and connection as people fought against the refugee ban in the US or against oppression around the world.  While tweets and protests signs can make their mark, hearing those holy words, “We Shall Overcome” has an undeniable power to cut through it all. Song connects us with each other and gives us strength to move ahead in our journeys.

But here’s where I must ask a challenging question. Do we truly have a song, an idea, a vision, that brings us, as a community and as individuals in this way?  Is it even possible to create this kind of profound sense of connection with each other, and to create something so powerful that every single person, every single voice will open up with joy and ruach to sing in harmony?  What is our Shirat Ha Yam, our song of the sea? Estonians can gather hundreds of thousands of people to sing with pride in their people, Moses can gather hundreds of thousands of Israelites to give thanks for their lives, and I wonder can we do the same.  Put another way, what is the uniting vision, the point of inspiration that can bring us together beyond our differences as Jews and as members of a diverse society to sing with pride, strength and clarity in a very broken world? This is a big question, but what is our song?

As Rabbi Ruth Sohn concludes her poem, "The Song of Miriam":


And the song—

the song rises again.

Out of my mouth

come words lifting the wind.

And I hear

for the first time

the song

that has been in my heart

Paying Attention-Dvar Torah Shemot

31/12/18 01:05:34 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

No matter our beliefs or non-beliefs, there are moments in Torah when we encounter clear messages about the interaction of faith, spirituality and everyday holiness. Of course this symbol of spirituality and encounter is found in the Torah as the character of God-for some a deeply strengthening concept, and for others a profoundly problematic one.  

God is described as the guiding parental figure of Genesis, the book which we just completed, or as the law giver of Leviticus, as a warrior.  God is seen as a giver of reward and punishment, or as “kol d’mama dakah” the still lingering small voice which Elijah encounters in the Book of Kings.  The Biblical God however is much more than a simple supernatural being, a concept to easily believe in or disown. It is a instead found through the hundreds of names and the many places in which we encounter this idea, a reminder of how we experience those moments beyond ourselves.  While the Torah doesn't’t shy away from miracles or calls for obedience to God, there are also those important hints that Godliness, that holiness and spirituality, are meant to found within the acts and relationships of our daily lives, not beyond them.

Of all the great theological messages of the Torah to this point, one of the most profoundly simple, and the most humbling, appears in this week's Torah portion.  After being introduced to Moses and hearing the story of his birth, we find the future leader of the Jewish people wandering the fields with his sheep. It is there that he encounters a burning bush.  Noticing that the bush was on fire but “was not consumed,” Moses turns to look, and is told by an angel of God to “not draw near and to take off your shoes because the place you stand is holy soil.” And so the story of Moses, God and the Jewish people begins--with a bush.

There is a Midrash that asks the question why when God could have chosen so many more majestic and impressive ways to appear to Moses, God chose to do so in the form of a humble bush.  In the Talmud, Yehoshua Ben Korcha responds simply that every place in the world is filled with God’s presence, and that we should not question the inherent holiness of a bush, whether it is burning or not (TB Brachot 7a).  Many centuries later the Hasidic movement added a different level of interpretation to this question, as Rabbi Shnuer Zalman of Lyadi said, that everything in the world, especially the most lowly of worldly objects is infused with the divine.  (In many ways this is the core of Hasidic philosophy, that all we experience, from the most enlightening moments to the crumbs of a loaf of bread can be a pathway to experiencing Godliness.)

Yet beyond this, we can be inspired to see the two separate commandments, for Moses to remove his shoes and for him to not approach the bush, as working together as reminders of humility and of the danger of believing that we have found the truth, that there is only belief or non-belief to sustain us.  “Do not come near here" means, even though you may hear the voice of God coming from this bush, don’t think that God exists in the bush.  Don’t say that you have “heard God” and then try to get others to experience the same encounter. Don’t spend the rest of your life after you leave this place searching for more talking bushes, more esoteric visions of a bush that is not consumed.  Instead, take off your shoes--root yourself to the ground to the place you are now. Find blessing, find strength and find your own voice in the moments of daily life.

Take off your shoes, so you can remember to find holiness and connection wherever you stand.   You don’t need a burning bush, and you don’t even need to have a supernatural concept of God to find this sense of meaning and connection.  Stay rooted and strengthened in your own experiences, and walk and live in Godly ways, if not necessarily with God, bringing into the world goodness and compassion in your actions and in your relationships.  

If the vision of a burning bush, a God beyond yourself gives you strength, then hold on to it.  But Godliness, spirituality and life is not necessarily found in the experiences beyond, in the great moments of mystery, but in what is literally beneath your very feet. “Remove your shoes” and get ready for a spiritual search that will fill up the whole of your journey.

And it is in this experience of the burning bush that the unique personality of Moses appears.  If God had appeared as a dazzling light display, or a fiery and thundering mountain--and there will be a time for that--there is no doubt that everyone would have noticed.  Yet, a simple bush in the middle of the desert, even one on fire, is not that unique of a sight and is bound to be overlooked. This uniquely fire-proof bush was a miraculous sight available only to those who truly were paying attention.  To see a bush on fire and walk on past is not that odd, but to look long enough, to have the focus and attention to see that the bush was burning but not burning up, took a special character. This kind of ability to pay attention to each moment and to each individual was the quality of Moses that God needed in the leader of the Jewish people.  

Moses may have gained strength from this powerful encounter at the burning bush, believing in something beyond himself, yet like all of us the sustaining power of spirituality, the practical reality of living a spiritual life comes not from encountering a being beyond ourselves, but from paying attention to the ground beneath our feet. “Take off your shoes”, stop looking for God in a bush or in the heavens, and find it within yourselves and your actions, and like Moses through the work you do in this world.

Rabbi Authur Green, in his Book Radical Judaism, summarizes well the nature of the spiritual encounter, as I see it, the “take off your shoes” experience of living a spiritual connected life:

What is the nature of this experience?  It is as varied as the countless individual human beings in the world and potentially as multifarious as the moments in each of those human lives. In the midst of life, our ordinariness is interrupted. This may take place as we touch one of the edges of life, in a great confrontation with the new life of a child, or out of an approaching death. We may see it in Wonders of Nature, sunrises and sunsets, mountains and oceans. It may happen to us in the course of loving and deeply entering into union with another, or in profound loneliness. Sometimes, however, such a moment of holy and awesome presence comes upon us without any apparent provocation at all. It may come as a deep inner Stillness, quieting all the background noise usually fills our inner chambers, or it may be quite the opposite, a loud rush and excitement that fills us to overflowing. It may seem to come from within or without, or perhaps both at once. The realization of such moment fills us with the sense of magnificence, of smallness, and of the longing, all at once our heart swell up with the love for the world around us and all at its grandeur.

And Green concludes that these moments are available to all of us.  Not just to all of the Moses’ of the world, and not just when we encounter a burning bush:

I believe with complete faith that every human being is capable of such experience, that these moments place us in contact with the elusive Inner Essence of being that I called “God.” Is out of such moments that religion is born, our human response to the dizzying depths of an encounter we cannot and yet so need to name.  (Green, Radical Judaism, pg 5-6)

Our spiritual journeys can often be frustrating, and we may be waiting around for that moment of inspiration or enlightenment that always seems just beyond our reach.  While we all thankfully have moments of greatness in our lives, those moments of “fire”, our prayers, our work, our relationships, sometimes just seem to be moving all too slowing towards their fulfillment.  This can be frustrating, yet like all those who walked past the burning bush, it is all too easy just to move on past the simple holiness that is right in front of us. The essence of Jewish “spirituality” is that we must pay attention to the blessing of the simple moments, and we must keep the greater vision of our lives in front of us.  We must channel this focus to move beyond ourselves, to care for our community and the world.  It all begins when we simply turn and pay attention to what is in front of our eyes, and what is right beneath our feet.

Beyond Chinese Food-Parshat Vayechi

24/12/18 05:02:58 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

While this week we mark the final parsha of the book of Genesis, the powerful concluding chapters of the story of Joseph and his brothers, it is also an important time on our calendar--albeit, the non-Jewish one.  This of course is the Shabbat before Christmas. Many of us joke about the Jewish traditions we have on this day--movies, board games, Chinese food or skiing, and many Jewish families take these traditions so seriously that December 25th wouldn't be the same without them.

My personal tradition growing up in Oregon was to start the morning with my family, having a cup of coffee and bagels at a local hotel.  Then we would make our way to the Jewish owned bookstore–which was always open on Christmas–and which became an informal meeting place for all of the Jewish book lovers in town to gather. We would spend much of the day there, reading, relaxing and taking our time perusing the endless aisles of the store. And then yes, we would finish the day with a Chinese dinner.  We didn’t have any tree, there were no presents, and Santa never visited our home. But there was no doubt about it, although I was a good Jewish kid, I always looked forward to December 25th with genuine excitement.

Recently, multiple books and documentary films have been published describing many of these odd Jewish Christmas traditions, especially the connection with Chinese food and Jews.  One of the best was last year’s CBC documentary “A Very Jewish Christmas” about the deeper reasons why so many of the best Christmas songs were written by Jews. And of course, the documentary takes place in a Chinese restaurant.

Yet what is especially interesting, and why this holiday is worth mentioning today, is that there are some very real traditions about Jews and December 25th.  These move far beyond any commandments about what to order from the Chinese menu, but describe in detail the laws and traditions about what Jews should and should not do on this day.  Exploring these traditions can help us understand how we have evolved in our connection with people of other faiths, and also how we have managed to turn the most non-Jewish of holidays into a uniquely Jewish day.

As you might expect, Jews have always had an interesting relationship with this holiday.  For much of Jewish history, the challenges between Christians and Jews made Christmas if nothing else, an uncomfortable experience which brought into the open the minority status of Jews in society.  For Jews in certain countries, Christmas primarily was a day to fear,

While we might think that the Jewish name for Christmas is the day of Chinese food and movies, there is a much more ancient source outlining the meaning of this day.  Christmas was called by many Ashkenazi communities since the Middle Ages the somewhat mysterious name, Nittle Nacht.  There are many possible sources of this title.  The most common explanation is straightforward; the term nittel originates from the Latin Natale Domini, “Nativity of the Lord”.  Yet, interestingly, when spelled in Hebrew, the words become a bit more derogatory, the “Night of the Hanged One” (nittel from talui “to hang”), or in a few slightly more complicated etymological word plays– the night in which Jesus’ life was taken from him,  leil netilato min ha-‘olam, or the most technical, Nolad Yeshu Tet L'tevet, meaning, "Jesus was born on the ninth of Tevet."

Even though this day has absolutely nothing to do with Judaism per se, Christmas of course had a very real effect on Jews and Jewish history.  Because of the person that this day celebrates, one could argue we had thousands of years of oppression, inquisitions, the roots of a specifically deadly form of anti Semitism, pogroms, and much worse.  With this truth, while we would not expect the Jews to be sitting around their tables with a kosher birthday cake for Jesus, being Jews, we of course had to have rules about what we could and could not do on this holy day of the Christians.  And in the end, these rules led not to only prohibitions, but also a very real way that we were invited to celebrate, even as we were specifically not celebrating, on Christmas.

The main tradition, the most well known, yet in some ways the most shocking, is to refrain from Torah study and Jewish learning.   The first source of this being Mekor Chayyim, the commentary of the Ashkenazi Rabbi R. Yair Chayyim Bakhrakh (1639-1702) which mentions specifically that Torah study should be prohibited on Christmas eve.  From this and other sources it was clear that this was not an isolated practice.

No Torah study?  This from a religious Jew?

It might come as a surprise to say that there is any day where one should not study Torah, since this is one of the core mitzvot of Jewish life. This act is considered one of the most holy Jewish practices, a way of exploring the truths of the world, of cleaving to God, and one of the most enjoyable acts that a person can do.  So to create a tradition that there is a day when this should not be done necessitates some good explanations.

One common reason given is that one should not study Torah as a sign of mourning. As with Tisha B’Av, the day when we mourn the destruction of the Temple, we would then mourn to remember all the tragedies, all of the blood that has been spilled over the generations in the name of Jesus and Christians.

There is also a mystical view to the prohibition on studying Torah on Nittel Night which says that Torah study and learning brings positive powers to the world, and that it was believed by some to be inappropriate to do this on a day which some considered a time of idolatry, a celebration of a non-Jewish faith, and at one time, also a day pogroms and anti-Jewish violence.  There was a concern that this Torah study could somehow honor or provide merit for the soul of Jesus, which was not desired. Or, on the most practical level, since Jews found so much joy from Torah study, they did not want to give Christians the wrong impression, to be seen studying on a day that so much of their world saw as a day to honor Jesus.

There were even some Hasidic rebbes who said that everyone should refrain from sleep on Christmas eve, just in case you might dream of Torah study.  (Oddly enough, there is another tradition of doing exactly that, of sleeping on Christmas, to prepare for the study to begin again at midnight). This rule to not study Torah was meant to be taken so seriously, that there was a Chassidic legend that said that wild dogs would visit those who those who "violated" the rule and studied Torah on Nittel Nacht (Bnei Yissaschar, Regel Yeshara, 10).

Or there is the following legend told about R. Jonathan Eibeschütz (1690-1764), an eighteenth-century Rabbi, who was asked about this curious traditions of refraining from study:

[Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg Alter of Ger] recounted that once a priest asked the holy Gaon, rabbi of all the diaspora, R. Jonathan Eibeschütz of blessed memory, “Do you Jews have a time when you do not study Torah, and your sages wrote that the world stands on the Torah, and if so, on what does the world stand in those hours.” And Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschütz answered him, that the custom of Israel is Torah. And the fact that Torah is not studied, is Torah, and the world exists on that.  (Jacob Emden,Sefer hit’abkut, Lemberg, 1877, p. 59a.)

Now, these being Jews, even with such a strange custom as this, there was disagreement to how not-studying-Torah was practiced!  Some said that one should not study Torah until midnight, others said until the morning. Others had that habit of sleeping in the early evening, and then waking up at midnight to study.  In some Hasidic communities today, people gather in the yeshiva on Christmas eve as midnight is approaching with their Talmuds in hand, waiting for the stroke of midnight when a community member or the rebbe hits the lectern, signaling that study can begin again.

But what was as important as the prohibitions, was also what people did instead.  And this is where things get interesting.

Historically, these first traditions arose from the obvious need to fill the time which one was not studying Torah.  If you were a religious Jew in the shtetl without Netflix or a good movie theatre nearby, you had to do something worthwhile instead.  

Torah scholars we were told would use the night to play cards, and others including many great rabbis, were known to play chess.  There are some later texts which speak about, clearly with a bit of humor, a tradition of ripping toilet paper to use on Shabbat for the rest of the year.  This practice has sadly fallen out of use, because now you can by shomer shabbat ready pre-ripped toilet paper at the local supermarkets.

Other popular activities for the Christmas Eve included a wonderfully secular mix of common activities, including: spending the night balancing your checkbook or managing one's finances, working on communal projects, reading secular books, learning a new language, or sewing.  And if you had some time left after all of these exciting tasks, you should make sure to eat some garlic, since this was thought to ward off demons and any other bad vibes that might be floating around on this problematic day.

It is important to note that many of these traditions were found primarily in Hasidic communities, and most Jews outside of these communities never accepted any of these practices.  While many Hasidic Jews still follow those traditions, many strongly oppose them. In fact, there are some well known rabbinic authorities who strongly oppose Nittel Nacht, calling it a waste of precious Torah study time.  Though then some say that observing this custom, or any custom, is inherently like studying Torah, and therefore only good!  Outside of Ashkenazi communities in the Sephardic world, there is very little knowledge of Nittle Nacht, since Jews in these countries didn’t have a similar fear of oppression. In the end, beyond all of this back and forth, there are some halachic authorities who simply say that we should follow these traditions, to use the technical term,”just because”.

I remember when I was the rabbi for the progressive Jewish community of Warsaw, and I was excited to introduce for the first time a gathering for Jews on Christmas, since much to my disappointment, the tradition of Chinese food and movies had not taken hold in the country.  Blending the wonderful North American Jewish traditions with a lighthearted take on Nittle Nacht, we organized an evening of movie watching, card games, music and fried perogies. (Not quite dim sum, but reasonable Chinese food was hard to come by in Poland.)

While we always advertised our programs, this one seemed to get more publicity than usual.  There were multiple radio interviews, a good size article in an online event website, and quite a bit of word of mouth publicity.  The interest in the program was most likely for practical reasons, that so many people felt left out in this very Catholic country and were excited to have an “alternative Christmas” celebration.  Yet, I feel there was also a curiously about what the Jews, this small minority group which once an important and large part of Polish society did on day devoted to Christians. It was a fun time for all.

It is clear that all of these strange traditions could have only evolved from a time and place where the Christian and Jewish communities were not on best of terms; Nittle Nacht and the customs of the day evolved from a place of fear and misunderstanding about Christian traditions, not from a respectful connection between the communities or, even, dare I say, from a deep desire to play poker.  In a world where we live peacefully among Christians, where we accept and welcome interfaith families and promote interfaith dialogue, these traditions may seem at best humourous, and at worst, dangerous.

Yet, to put a positive spin on the traditions of Nittle Nacht, we have to recognize what is happening on a deeper level with the evolution of these traditions, and what it says about how we Jews confront the realities of the world.  

As the Jewish community no longer had fear from the Christians, and as Jews lived in a world of coexistence with and respect for other religions, the traditions continued for more practical reasons.  Most stores, restaurants and places of entertainment were closed, nearly everyone was on vacation, and there simply was not much to do! Jews being practical minded and creative, turned Christmas, a day of which was once a painful reminder of our separateness and of suffering, into a day of relaxation and fun. While we would miss out on Torah for a day, we could have faith that we could catch up with friends and family, do some straightening up around the house, and play a few games of cards. Not bad for a non-Jewish holiday!

Whatever your Christmas traditions are, Chinese food, movies, seeing Christmas lights, or celebrating Christmas with non-Jewish family, it is clear that this is no longer a holiday to fear, physically, philosophically or otherwise.  While the roots of Nittle Nacht clearly do very little to respect or honor the celebrations of our Christian neighbors, they also leave a place to enjoy the season for many of the same reasons that they do. As so much of the world shuts down, if we take one stream of our tradition seriously, then we are commanded to relax, spend time with friends and family, and simply enjoy this quiet time in the darkness of winter.

As Jews have always done, we took what was for us, a normal day, and turned it into something better.  It may not be our religious holiday, or a celebration of our faith, but we can always use an excuse to have a celebration of life.  So L’Chaim to life, and may we all have a Merry, Merry...Tuesday!

Wed, September 18 2019 18 Elul 5779