If You’re Really Offended, You Gotta Go Caroling

By Joel Friedman

Published December 23, 2005, issue of December 23, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.