Thursday, November 27, 2014

Expressing Gratitude on Thanksgiving

Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom from Want'
Once again as I do every year, I would like to offer my best wishes to all for a Happy Thanksgiving. The custom widely observed in this country is to have a festive turkey dinner with your family. Among religious Jews there are many opinions as to whether this is appropriate for us… or whether it is even appropriate to celebrate Thanksgiving in any way at all. This is based on the question of whether Thanksgiving is a legal non religious holiday or in fact a religious one.

The answer is not so clear. Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the early Pilgrims who actually based it on the Torah’s commandment to the Jewish people to celebrate the fall harvest season… better known as Sukkos. 

Of course Sukkos is not only about that. It is obviously more about remembering how our ancestors left Egypt and of necessity lived in temporary dwellings called Sukkos (hence one of the reasons for the name of the holiday). But it is also about celebrating the fall harvest. The Pilgrims  (who were very religious Christians) focused on our Torah (which they refer to as the ‘Old Testament’). That may have been what led them to mimic this celebration because of their own fall harvest at around that time of year.

This would seem to make it a non Jewish religious holiday and not to be celebrated by the Jewish people. There are some Poskim who feel that way and forbid celebrating it as a violation of the prohibition against idol worship. Or at least connected to it (which is also forbidden by Jewish law).

But Rav Moshe Feinstein - whom many consider the Posek HaDor of the 20th century - was not one of them. He declared Thanksgiving not to be a religious holiday. Others - like Rav Yitzchok Hutner and R’ Menashe Klein felt that it was and should not be celebrated in any way. Still others objected specifically to the ‘ritual’ of having Turkey on that day. Still others allow it provided we don’t treat it as a mandatory ritual every year.

I take the view of my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik who not only permits celebrating the day, he permits eating a festive turkey dinner with one’s family on that day.  As did his brother, the Rav. It is rather well known that the Rav (and I assume Rav Ahron) attended the annual family turkey dinner hosted their sister every Thanksgiving.

As I say every year at this time- if there was ever a day to give thanks to the ‘Medina Shel Chesed’ – country of Kindness -for the privilege of living in it - with its unprecedented acceptance of our presence here, this is the day to do it. More importantly we should be giving thanks to God for leading us to this great nation. 

Saying Hallel is one way to do that. Although I do not advocate doing so there is at least one Orthodox synagogue that actually does say Hallel on Thanksgiving.  And they have been doing it for over 200 years.   

Happy Thanksgiving.