Jewish Journal

A Christmas Sermon For Jews

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

December 24, 2013 | 7:24 am

I have a recurrent fantasy. Actually, it would make a pretty funny television movie. In the fantasy, I am very good friends with a Protestant minister. In early December, a church calls him to be its spiritual leader. Because they had only interviewed him by phone, they have never met him, and have never laid eyes upon him. 

On the day before Christmas eve, he goes out of town and his car breaks down, stranding him in God-knows-where. He calls me and asks me if I would dress up in his robes, pretend to be him, and deliver the Christmas sermon to his new flock.

There are numerous holes in this fantasy (like what does he do when he finally comes back and the congregation realizes that their preacher on Christmas eve was not the same person that they now encounter). Even still, I wonder aloud what I would preach if I were to give a Christmas sermon.

So here it is. My first Christmas sermon.

Let's cut to the chase. This season is not about reindeer, or gifts, or trees. This season is not about wreaths, or Jingle Bells, or Santa Claus. This season is not about peace on earth, good will to men. Nor is it even really only about the birth of Jesus, or about the coming of the Christian Messiah.

This season celebrates the Incarnation. This season makes the outrageous claim: God was incarnated as a Jewish child, born into the family of a carpenter from Galilee, born in a manger in Bethlehem. His parents were refugees. He was not born in a sterile nursery, but surrounded by cows and sheep and the bouquet of manure. 

Because of this child, God is no longer aloof from the world. Because of this child, God chooses to be present in the world. God is born in human form to share the pains and aspirations of mortals.

And that, my friends, is the true meaning of Christmas. 

What is the Jewish response to the theology of this season?

First, Judaism believes that there is an abyss between God and humanity. That abyss is real, and it will always exist. God cannot become human -- and humans cannot become God. But sometimes we navigate that immeasurable gulf between the human and the holy. We cross that border in moments of prayer and worship; in moments of sacred study; in moments of mitzvot, in sacred obligation.

So, too, we cross that border in moments of laughter, and joy, and playfulness, and even rage at the horrific moral and civilizational failures that we witness all around us.

The second Jewish response to the theology of this season is to understand what Jews also have a sense of incarnation.

Here goes: The Torah is the incarnation of God in the world.

It make sense. That is why we treat the scroll with such reverence. It is why we bury the scroll as we would a person; why we rise before the scroll as we rise before greatness; why we fast or give tzedakah when we drop the scroll. It is why Jewish parents cry when their child clutches the Torah at bar and bat mitzvah. It is why the Nazis deliberately desecrated Torah scrolls – because they were waging a war against God.

Moreover, when we do Torah, we become the incarnation of Torah -- and we become Godliness incarnate. That’s why you must give the same kind of honor to a sage as you would to a Torah scroll. Jewish law says that a sage who forgets his learning through no fault of his own should be treated like a Torah scroll whose letters are worn away -- still sacred, still revered.

Consider: In medieval France, there was a ceremony for Jewish children who were a month old. The child was placed upon a bound text of the Hebrew Bible, and the parents would place a quill in his or her hand.

Why on the Hebrew Bible? So that the child would embody that teaching. Why a quill? So that the child would become a scribe, writing his or her own chapter in Jewish history.

Elie Wiesel tells of a group of Jews in Auschwitz who wanted to celebrate Simchat Torah. But they lacked a Torah scroll.

A man asked a boy: "Do you remember what you’ve learned?”

Yes,” said the boy. I remember Shema Yisrael.”

"Shema Yisrael is enough," said the man. And he lifted the boy from the ground and began dancing with him, as though he was the Torah.

"Never before," Wiesel later wrote, "had Jews celebrated Simchat Torah with such fervor."

So much for the Incarnation. Do we believe it?

No, not back in the ancient land of Israel in a manger. Though I must say that we can sympathize with our Christian friends and relatives who do believe it -- because it is a very powerful belief, and it reminds us of the longing for the transdendent.

But we can experience that sense of godly incarnation -- in our own way -- and yes, in our own place and in our own time and in our own lives.

And to this, let no one dare say: Bah, humbug!

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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