This time of year, interfaith couples often struggle to find balance in celebrating the holidays. A recent article in the New York Times discusses conflicts that arise over rituals, decorations and gifts, and even the Anti-Defamation League has offered schools and government offices guidance for negotiating the “December Dilemma.”
Those seeking answers to such seasonal issues should turn to Gil Mann’s book “Sex, God, Christmas and Jews” (Leo and Sons), a compilation of Internet discussions on Judaism.
In 1997 Mann, who is a journalist, was asked to manage an area of America Online about Judaism, and readers began emailing him with intimate questions about their lives and faith. “Sex, God, Christmas and Jews,” a 2006 Koret International Jewish Book Award finalist, includes real emails from years of discourse. Mann describes the work as a modern-day Talmudic adventure.
There are plenty of “Ask the Rabbi”-type forums online, but the people who have been emailing Mann likely know that he is not a rabbi. Nor is he a Jewish academic. He says that this works to his advantage: He does not represent a movement or a religious position. This, he postulates, is good reason for what he refers to as “Relevant Judaism,” that is, seeking assistance outside the walls of conventional Judaism.
The Jews who write to him include those from all of the major and minor denominations, as well as those who are secular and unaffiliated. He also hears from, to his surprise, many non-Jews. A Christian writes him bewildered at why Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the messiah.
Like the TV show “Mythbusters,” Mann takes the reader through a scientific method to arrive at an answer. He presents the problem, sifts through possible explanations and wraps up with a hypothesis.
One such myth he tackles is the urban legend that there is a practice in Judaism in which couples have sex through a hole in a sheet. Mann’s research and the reader response came to the conclusion that it would actually be a violation of Jewish law to indulge in such an act. Halacha requires full contact between a husband and wife, Mann says.
Other questions he tackles: Are women second class citizens in Judaism? Is it okay to have a Christmas tree? Is circumcision barbaric or unnecessary?
At the end of each chapter Mann deftly explains his conclusions without sounding overbearing, as though he were speaking to a friend.
The book does not offer hard and fast answers in the conventional sense. Instead, it is a culmination of opinions formed through discussion. That’s not to say that Mann’s answers aren’t researched. But those looking for more definitive and solid Biblical proof for clarification, or a scholarly exegesis, won’t find it in his book. Then again, like the real Talmud, it’s a mosaic, or cacophony, of opinions that sometimes conflict.
Dave Gordon is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Toronto Sun and the New York Times.