If You’re Really Offended, You Gotta Go Caroling

By Joel Friedman

Published December 23, 2005, issue of December 23, 2005.
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It’s been a year since Bill O’Reilly publicly accused me of being part of the “War on Christmas.” When I called into his radio show to express concern about the effects on Jewish children of celebrating Christmas in the public schools, he infamously advised me that, “If you’re really offended, you gotta go to Israel.”

Over the past year O’Reilly has tried to argue that no offense was intended. That’s fine by me, because none taken. In fact, offense has nothing to do with it — at least for me.

O’Reilly, on the other hand, has a strange affinity for the verb “offend” and its various conjugations.

O’Reilly admits that he is offended by the supposed diminution of public Christmas symbols, which might perhaps explain why he mistakenly assumed that I was offended by their ubiquity. And he berates stores for using “Happy Holidays” in their advertising instead of “Merry Christmas,” claiming the switch to be offensive.

In their crusade to rid America of this offensiveness, O’Reilly and his like-minded friends claim they are defending the Judeo-Christian traditions of this country. However, there is a fundamental flaw in their use of the term “Judeo-Christian.” Contrary to what the missionaries might tell you, according to Halacha, or rabbinic law, a Jew cannot practice Christianity — a prohibition that excludes an observant Jew from any but the most secular aspects of Christmas.

But while rabbinic law prohibits Jews from participating in Christmas, we still respect the institution and those who celebrate it. Respect for our neighbor’s religious traditions, however, does not mean that we or our children can practice them.

For example, it is a violation of rabbinic law for a Jew to sing certain Christmas carols, such as “Silent Night.” The exclusion of such songs — beautiful as they are — from public schools has nothing to do with Jews being offended. Teaching them could, inadvertently, coerce a child into violating his faith, out of the sight of his parents.

Why does this simple article of faith offend certain Christians? When I tried to point it out last year to O’Reilly, he, in addition to suggesting I go to Israel, labeled my concern “an affront to the majority” in America and unreasonably assumed that I wished to avoid all public Christmas displays and symbols.

Sadly, some Jewish journalists have perpetuated this myth that observant Jews are offended by Christmas. Radio talk-show host Michael Medved played a doctored version of my conversation with O’Reilly to support his claim that I was “uncomfortable and offended by Christmas,” even claiming that I had said as much. And the editor of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Exponent, Jonathan Tobin, misquoted and misrepresented my statements in order to imply that I am “paranoid,” going so far as to suggest that I am not grounded in my faith.

It is regrettable that these men cannot distinguish between someone taking offense and merely expressing a legitimate concern. Perhaps a lesson from the Torah might help them to clarify the difference.

In Exodus 32:19, Moses sees the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, and smashes the first set of tablets. The commentators teach us that he did not do so out of anger. Anger, we learn, is an emotion that arises from offense done to us personally. What affected Moses was not anger, but indignation, a reaction caused by witnessing offense done to another.

Moses witnessed an offense done to God. I, with slightly less at stake, witnessed an insult to Jewish parents who merely want to prevent their children from violating their faith — parents whom Bill O’Reilly called “anti-Christmas.”

Nor would O’Reilly have us believe that “The War on Christmas,” to borrow the title of the recently published book by John Gibson, is limited to easily offended Israelites. Retailers, he would have us believe, have declared an all-out assault on traditional America by using the term “Happy Holidays” in their advertisements instead of “Merry Christmas.” No more complaints about too much commercialization of Christmas — now there is not enough. And then there’s the matter, raised by Gibson, of substituting the phrase “holiday tree” for “Christmas tree,” which could be confusing to children.

The only offense to be had here, I would argue, is to our intelligence. First of all, the implication that a decorated tree is somehow a symbol of Hanukkah is far more disrespectful to Judaism than it is to Christianity. And second, is it not patently obvious that by wishing “Happy Holidays,” stores are merely trying to attract customers such as me, who might otherwise not participate in the winter buying frenzy?

Despite what O’Reilly might say, I am not offended if I receive an ad that says “Merry Christmas.” I am equally unoffended by ads for motorcycles or skydiving equipment — but as I do not partake of those activities either, I am not likely to spend much time reading about the low prices and gift ideas relating to them. Stores using “Happy Holidays” to encourage more people to get involved in the capitalistic festivities seems a sound idea, and good for the economy to boot.

So what is the answer to the “December Dilemma”? Same as the answer to many dilemmas: Don’t be offended. Just listen.

As the usual Christmas greeting does not come naturally to me, I wish my Christian friends a joyous holiday. I tell them that there is no problem calling our club’s December get-together a Christmas party. I marvel at the passion my neighbors put into their beautiful light displays.

I still laugh after viewing “Miracle on 34th Street” for the umpteenth time, and I freely admit that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is one of the greatest animated specials ever made — I just don’t sing along to it.

Joel Friedman is editor of JewishCaller.com.

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