December 19, 2002
A Letter from Jerusalem: Christmas 2002
-- Ithamar Gruenwald
Christmas this year cannot be like any Christmas in previous years. In the year that has passed, the Church of the Nativity was turned -- for a while -- into a beleaguered fortress. Arab Palestinians forced their way into the Church, and Israeli troops and armour forced them out. War makes horrible things happen. Whether it is the Palestinian police or the Israeli army, midnight mass is conducted with guns protecting the Holy Host.
The war that now plagues the Holy Land leaves no one indifferent. Christmas this year is therefore a moment that generates serious meditation. International terrorism has forced the world into a new situation, one in which thoughts lose their needed consistency. May God help and direct those who, under the circumstances, have to think twice or thrice before taking action.
Christmas 2002 is a time to look beyond the Christmas tree, the lights, and the other decorations and festivities. It is a time for a new resolve and a clear determination to celebrate birth and condemn everything that marks the reverse of a birth event.
In a wider historical context, Christmas brings up reflections on the role the Jewish setting had in shaping the events connected with the rise of Christianity. Jesus was born a Jew. The manger was a Jewish manger. Christians believe that a light was shining in Bethlehem, a divine light, which had yet made no theological divisions. A light utterly removed from the dark night of human compassion as experienced in the events of 2001 and 2002.
When, however, a parting of the ways came into effect, we, the Jews, were pushed aside, condemned, and damned. Can we, then, rejoice with our Christian friends at Christmas time? In his memoir, From Berlin to Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem tells that in his family they used to celebrate Christmas, with a Christmas tree and everything. I heard the same story from my father who emigrated in 1933 from Berlin to, then, Palestine. This is how Jewish people in Germany understood and enacted their emancipation from a status of ethnic minority. In their eyes, this opened the door to a positive assimilation, or, in more modern terms, to civil acculturation. Scholem even tells that at one point his mother put the picture of Theodor Herzel, the founder of Zionism, under the Christmas tree -- a remarkable mode of messianic transposition. Scholem remarks, though, that since then he always left home at Christmas time.
What are we to do, here in Jerusalem, on this day? I can speak for myself. This is a moment for me to share a few thoughts with friends, known and unknown. From a global village, we have moved into a new kind of global war. To protect our own house, we have to protect the house of a close-by or distant neighbour. I find myself meditating on what differences and alienation can cause. Thus, differences that have separated us, Jews and Christians, in the past should be allowed to dissolve; at least, let's give joint efforts their chance. Whether this concerns our environment, our social structure, or the acuteness of our sense of justice, we have a lot to do together. Perhaps it will simply be our ability to notice the hand that is stretched out to us and respond, with consideration, to the needs that the gesture expresses. It will certainly be reflected in our sincerity and prayers for peace. We have a lot to do together.
It is a Jewish custom to greet friends on the days that mark Jewish holidays and festivals with the words "Chag Same'ach," a happy holiday. In Christian terms, this will equal "Merry Christmas."
Ithamar Gruenwald lives in Jerusalem. He teaches at Tel Aviv University, Israel, at the Department of Jewish Philosophy and the Program in Religious Studies. For many years he has been closely associated with the Divinity School, the University of Chicago.