Guest Post by Rabbi Bill Kanter
Recently I read a halachic article that I feel compelled to comment on (this may not change anyone's mind, but at least my children will know how I feel about matters).
In the December 12, 2014 (Parshat Vayeshev) edition of Halacha Encounters, "A Project of the Chicago Community Kollel" Rabbi Moshe Kaufman, a full-time member of the Kollel, discusses various greetings and names that can or cannot be said during this time of year. The first column of the two column article is a brief summary of the issue of whether or not Christianity is avodah zarah (It is interesting to point out that on three occasions Rabbi Kaufman is careful to spell the word Christianity without the first "i," so it reads "Chr-stianity." However, his proofreader fails him in the top line of column two, where the word Christianity is spelled correctly).
The second column is devoted to answering four questions. 1) May a Jew say Jesus? 2) May a Jew say Christ? 3) May a Jew wish someone a Merry Christmas? and 4) May a Jew go to a holiday party?
With one exception, it is beyond the scope of this article to explore different sources than those cited by Rabbi Kaufman to deal with these issues. I simply want to use the same sources he uses (with the one exception found in the next paragraph) and come out to different and more balanced conclusions.
The one source I will add to the discussion is that while Rabbi Kaufman quotes the Shulchan Aruch (YD 148:9) that "one may greet a non-Jew on his holidays but with a sense of heaviness..." he does not mention the Rama in YD 148:12 who says (about all of these laws) that nowadays "one may rejoice with them 'mishum eiva'" (due to -or perhaps if there is a fear of- animosity).
What follows are the quotations from Rabbi Kaufman's article wherein he answers these questions, followed by my rewrite in bold.
On the question of saying Jesus:
Kaufman: "The example the Haagos Maimonios gives is the fact that the name of J is mentioned many places in the Talmud (before removal by the censors). Therefore, there would be no technical issur. However, today it is a very uncommon name to have, unless it is associated with that religion, so many Jews avoid using it.
Kanter: "The example the Haagos Maimonios gives is the fact that the name of Jesus is mentioned many places in the Talmud (before removal by the sensors). Therefore, there would be no issur. In fact, today it is a very common name to have in many places (especially in the rapidly growing American Hispanic communities and throughout Latin America), so many Jews have no problem using this name, although some are more stringent and do avoid using it."
On the question of saying Christ:
Kaufman: "Rav Azriel Hildesheimer (Shu"t Vol 1, YD 180) is at a loss to explain why people are lax in this regard [i.e, people say this name]. For a person to use these words in the context of swearing, such as in court or rush-hour traffic, would be in violation of the prohibition against swearing in the name of false deities."
Kanter: "Rav Azriel Hildesheimer (Shu"t Vol 1, YD 180) is at a loss to explain why people are lax in this regard [i.e, people say this name]. For a person to use these words in the context of swearing, such as in court, would be in violation of the prohibition against swearing in the name of false deities." However, since no one in court (at least in this country) is ever asked to swear in the name of Jesus Christ or any other deity name (the customary terminology in court is "so help me God,") this would almost never be an issue. Regarding using this name in rush-hour traffic, further discussion is required regarding the purpose of invoking this name at such a time. One could suggest that the driver is not swearing in the name of the deity but is swearing at the deity in a condescending manner. It is also possible that using this name will prevent the speaker from using a variety of other foul sounding and prohibited words.
On the question of saying Merry Christmas:
Kaufman:"...it is quoted in the name of Rav Scheinberg zt"l, that today the day is celebrated by most people as a secular holiday, and the name itself does not carry a religious connotation (Divrei Sofrim). Many people refer to the day as Xmas..."
Kanter: "...it is quoted in the name of Rav Scheinberg zt"l, that today the day is celebrated by most people as a secular holiday, and the name itself does not carry a religious connotation (Divrei Sofrim). Based on this, Jewish people should have no problem using the greeting Merry Christmas although again, some are more stringent and do refer to the day as Xmas..."
On the question of attending "any sort of holiday party:"
Kaufman: "One may not attend any sort of holiday party, even for business purposes, if at all possible. If one's job would be in jeopardy if he failed to attend, one should ask a shailah."
Before proceeding with my rewrite of this paragraph I would like to point out that while discussing the other issues Rabbi Kaufman marshals Halachic sources. However, for this rather broad pronouncement "any sort of holiday party," he cites no source. This appears then to be his opinion as opposed to being a halacha rooted in poskim. One has to ask, what if the "holiday party" is the entire office (with staff of various denominations and religions) going to a kosher restaurant with their spouses, or some other "kosher" venue.
Kanter: "Regarding attending holiday parties, whether this time of year or any time of year, it should go without saying, that a Ben Torah or Bas Yisroel must always act appropriately and when there is a question of attending any event a Rav should be consulted."(This is assuming of course that the holiday party is not also a Christian event which would most certainly be prohibited).
In addition to the above I would like to add the following. The role of Minhag or custom in Halacha cannot be overstated. This is the case regarding many areas such as mode of dress and speech and interaction with Gentiles, or more specific areas such as the proliferation of Eruvim in major metropolitan areas, shaving, eating chodosh, women learning Gemarah (in Israel there are several women Daf Yomi classes) or using live chickens for Kapparos (which many poskim are against and also violate at least one city ordinance- Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 53.67, banning "animal sacrifices...in any religious or cult ritual") as well as many hundreds of other activities.
The Gemarah in several places uses a principle of "go out and see what is happening in the streets." While this does not mean that we can just follow what "the street" does with no Halachic guidance (lest we would all drive on Shabbos, God forbid, because most Jews do), it does mean that we need to be mindful of the principal that "the custom of Jews is holy." When I have mentioned this principle in the parts of our community of which I believe Rabbi Kaufman likely identifies, a common refrain is "the Oy'lum is a Goy'lum" i.e. "the world out there is uneducated" (lit: "the world is a mindless clod").
In my opinion this expression, while cute, is obnoxious and breeds a sense of haughtiness by those who invoke it (I have never heard this from Rabbi Kaufman specifically). It also allows for one to disregard the role of the (shomer Torah and Mitzvos) Jewish masses in having a hand in deciding the Halacha in certain matters.
As stated by Rav Yehudah Henkin in Tradition magazine 37:3, 2003 (regarding the book Oz Ve-Hadar Levusha) "Books such as Oz ve-Hadar Levusha are as much about ideology and musar as they are about halakha ...[and they] continue the process of standardization of halakha at the expense of local custom."
When I discuss this issue of one's ideology (Hashkafa) influencing one's halachic perspective to the point where one cannot be or refuses to be objective in his (or her) halachik analysis, I often tell the parable of the little boy who dreamed of being an expert archer. According to this parable, a man was walking in the forest and he came upon a tree with a bull's-eye and an arrow right in the center of the bull's-eye. The man thought to himself that a really fine archer must be in these woods.
He then turned to see dozens of other trees all with bull's-eyes and all with an arrow in the center of the bull's-eye. The man thought that the archer in these woods is the finest in the world and he really wanted to meet this archer. He then spotted a little boy of no more than 12 years old and this boy was holding a bow and arrow and a number of cans of paint.
The man asked the boy if he knew where the great archer was and the boy responded that he (the boy) is the person who shot the arrows at the trees but he is not really a very good archer. He simply shoots the arrow at the tree and when he hits a tree with the arrow he goes over and paints a bull's-eye around the arrow.
In this article Rabbi Kaufman begins with "an arrow in the tree." That is that according to Halacha: saying Jesus is wrong, saying Christ is wrong, wishing Merry Christmas is wrong and going to "any sort of holiday party" is also wrong. He then produces various sources and "paints" such a picture.
I am not accusing Rabbi Kaufman of purposefully or knowingly misrepresenting the Halacha. (Such accusations have been made about other authors and publishers and I will briefly point out 3 instances.
1) In the aforementioned Tradition article Rav Henkin accuses Rabbi Eliyahu Falk, the author of Oz ve-Hadar Levusha, of a "pattern of wishful or willful misreading of the Iggerot Moshe" when analyzing Rav Moshe's heter to allow women to uncover a tefach of hair;
2) Recently in a blog post, Prof. Marc B. Shapiro has pointed out that in the latest edition of the Artscroll Mikraot Gedolot, several sections of the Rashbam's commentary on Genesis chapter 1 have been entirely censored out by the ArtScroll publishers;
3) The cropping out of Rav Soloveitchik from the picture that was taken with the Rav, Rav Ahron Kotler and Reb Irving Bunim and appears in the book The Legacy of Rav Ahron Kotler, also by Artscroll. Note that the picture was taken at the first Chinuch Atzmai dinner on January 11, 1956 and Rav Soloveitchik was invited to the event by Rav Kotler and sat next to him.
For many more such examples the reader can see Rabbi J.J. Schachter's article Facing the Truths of History in Torah U-Madda Journal Valoume 8 1998-1999). ). I am suggesting that Rabbi Kaufman's (and others) ideology may prevent him from dealing with Halachic issue with the requisite objectively.
We must remember that Torah must always be "Toras Emes" or a "Torah of Truth." Yes, we all approach the Halacha with our own biases. However, when one's Hashkafa (perhaps molded by one's upbringing and education) prevents one from having and employing the objectivity that is required in any truthful legal analysis, then he or she may be turning our holy Torah into something different entirely.
Bill Kanter is an attorney and financial planner in Chicago.