Thursday, November 26, 2009

Celebrating Thanksgiving

One of the best ways to express our gratitude for all the beneficence the United States has provided to the Jewish people is to celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.

That is a very controversial statement but it shouldn’t be. In fact I believe Rav Moshe Feinstein frowns on the customary way of celebrating this day - that of eating turkey in a festive family meal setting. I believe that he says that it is a Minahg Garua - not a virtuous practice.

But I am not alone in questioning his views. I believe Rav Soloveitchik participated in just such a meal on Thanksgiving. And I know his brother - my own Rebbe, Rav Ahron, ate turkey on Thanksgiving too. I cannot speak to Rav Moshe’s reason. But I can speak to my own view of why celebrating Thanksgiving by eating turkey with one’s family is a good thing.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1621 by the Pilgrims who were Puritans and very focused on their Old Testament (which is essentially our Torah). They probably saw this as a version of Sukkos which is celebrated around this time of year (in the Fall). They wanted to give thanks for the bounty they had just harvested. Having a Seudas Hoda’ah was how they felt that could best be expressed. One might ask – if that is the case, doesn’t that become a religious holiday? The answer is no. No church or church authority mandated it. It is only recognition by laypeople of a Higher Being, His beneficence, and the desire to express thanks to Him.

It wasn’t until George Washington established it in 1789 by proclamation that it became a national holiday. Here in part is what it says:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country…

George Washington was not a cleric or any kind of religious figure. But he nonetheless saw the value of expressing thanks to the Creator by all of its citizens regardless of religion. In short it is a national holiday in which every citizen may – if they so choose - express their gratitude it in whichever form their own religion dictates or allows.

This is in essence a national meal. We Americans are all in the same boat and experience the same great bounty God has granted to the American nation. It is to show appreciation for that and recognition that the American people are after all a God fearing people at the core that recognizes that there is a Creator that should be thanked. What better way is there than to join with our fellow citizens in the national tradition? What to could possibly be wrong with expressing our own Hakaras HaTov to both God and the American people?

Some would say that there are other national holidays where we can do this. Like Independence Day or Memorial Day. That’s true and we should celebrate those days too. The idea of non Jews mandating a meal seems wrong to them. I disagree. In my view the most concrete way to show our gratitude is by actively participating alongside the American people – each family in their own homes - in a festive meal. This is a far better way to express our gratitude than – say -going to a fireworks display on the Fourth of July.

This does not mean to say that this day has any religious significance. It has none. Nor does it mean that one must have a turkey dinner. America is still a free country. But I think it is not only permissible but laudable to do so.

Happy Thanksgiving. And to those who are having turkey today, bon appétit!