With today's ruthless emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity, many members of the nation's Christian majority have begun to worry that even the most innocuous yuletide celebrations may somehow offend adherents of minority religions.
Every year, these concerns give rise to ludicrous confrontations, as with the recent collision of the figure skater, the carolers, the bureaucrat and the cop.
In Riverside, Calif., Olympic silver medalist and U.S. National Champion Sasha Cohen delivered a predictably dazzling performance at the city's outdoor skating rink on the downtown pedestrian mall. After she concluded her show and began signing autographs for the happy holiday crowds, a high school choir (previously booked for the occasion) launched into a series of Christmas carols. They began with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and a city special events employee became concerned that Ms. Cohen, who happens to be Jewish, might feel offended. Perhaps the officious bureaucrat worried specifically about the lyric, "God rest ye merry gentlemen/ Let nothing you dismay/ Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day … "
In any event, the official event coordinator grabbed a nearby cop, went over to the choir and ordered them to cease and desist in mid-carol. Of course, no one had bothered to ask Ms. Cohen's opinion and through her representatives she later suggested that she had no objection whatever to the performance of Christmas music in her presence. Eventually, even the mayor of the city communicated his regrets for the fiasco. "You certainly have my apology," Ron Loveridge declared. "It is unfortunate."
This particular misfortunate incident stemmed from three fundamentally mistaken assumptions that have become much too common in contemporary America:
1. That Jews are invariably threatened or discomfited by Christian celebrations and messages.
Of course, this notion proceeds from appalling ignorance of the attitudes of the overwhelming majority of American Jews and the values of Judaism itself. For better or worse, the number of Jews who display Christmas trees in their homes is vastly larger than the number of Jews who feel offended or uncomfortable in any way with public celebrations of Christmas.
We represent 2.3 percent of the U.S. population, so it hardly comes as a bitter shock when the annual avalanche of seasonal decorations and observances remind us that we represent a small religious minority. Yes, it would be obnoxious to insist that your Jewish neighbor join you in singing Christmas carols, but it's hardly inconsiderate for him to hear your singing from next door (as long as you're not too badly off-key). It's a shame that many Christians (and far too many Jews) know nothing about Judaism beyond its refusal to recognize Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord.
Defining any religion as a negative, rather than a positive -- seeing Judaism as the "un-Christianity" without recognizing its distinctive theology, rules and world view -- helps to create the unreasonable and needless fear that Jews will always feel wounded by Christian affirmation. If the essence of Jewish identity is, indeed, rejection of Jesus, then doesn't the celebration of Jesus contradict the sacred core of a Jew's religious commitment? In truth, the more that Jews know about the substantive, positive propositions of our tradition, the less likely that they will feel uncomfortable with Christian's rejoicing in their different tradition.
2. That a pluralistic society requires that we make heroic efforts to avoid offending our neighbors.
In truth, common sense will keep Americans from offending one another -- as long as we ignore the shrieks and bleats of a handful of high profile, professional "activists" and "ethnic advocates" who need to take offense as a matter of self-interest and survival. Concerning the morbid new sensitivity about Christmas trees, seasonal greetings and even Santa Claus, I can testify that 40 years ago, when ordinary people felt far more free and unfettered to express their holiday joy, the Jewish community wasn't secretly seething with resentment and hurt. No, your Jewish neighbor won't feel offended at the greeting "Merry Christmas," any more than you'd feel offended if he wished you a "Happy Hanukkah."
In the recently publicized dispute about Christmas trees and a request for a menorah at the SeaTac airport in Seattle, the activist rabbi at the center of the controversy never said or suggested that he felt "offended" by Christmas trees in that public place, nor did he ask for their removal. He merely requested that he be allowed to install a menorah alongside them. It was the airport officials who decided to take down the trees (before public outcry caused a reversal of their decision) because they felt uncomfortable with the menorah. Most Americans, however, feel comfortable with religious expressions of every kind, as long as their own expressions of faith remain unrestricted and respected.
3. That affirmation or promotion of any one religion somehow detracts from the vitality and security of all other religions.
Religion isn't a zero sum game: If your Baptist church is jammed to the rafters every Sunday, that doesn't mean that the Catholic church across the street is losing members. There's reason to believe, in fact, that an intensification of religious commitment for one denomination will benefit all faiths in a given community, encouraging everyone to think more seriously about the advantages of affiliation and worship.
For instance, if you see that your neighbors are preparing a festive family Seder on Passover, and you see the bustle and fervor in their Jewish household, you're all the more likely to think about putting together an Easter gathering for your family. With so many millions of American households describing themselves as non-believers or unaffiliated with any organized faith, most denominations can grow at a healthy rate and recruit countless new members without poaching active adherents of other faiths. All of us who believe that faith communities contribute in a positive way to American society should welcome the growth of all law-abiding congregations and the emergence of religious questions and doctrines as a common, more comfortable subject for public discussion.
In that context, the Riverside, Calif. official and her unwitting police accomplice need not have stifled the caroling choristers out of fear that their exuberance might threaten a Jewish figure skater. In fact, their concern could have resulted in an offer to allow Ms. Cohen to teach the singers a Hanukkah song, if she felt like it. In a season of rejoicing and good will, we all benefit from more inspirational music and enthusiastic new voices, rather than enforced silence.