My children and I have a now sacred tradition on Thanksgiving, we go for a bike ride on the Charleston Battery. Before we eat our own weight in turkey and mashed potatoes, a little exercise doesn’t hurt. Downtown Charleston is practically a ghost town on Thanksgiving since schools are out of session and much of the peninsula’s transplant population seems to travel back home for the weekend. So it’s a great day for a family outing.
This past Thursday as I’m riding next to my five year old son, some people walking on the Battery said “Happy Thanksgiving” to us. My son then turned to me and said, “Hey, they’re Jewish too!” I asked my son what makes him think that those people are Jewish? He responded, “well, of course they are Jewish because they are celebrating Thanksgiving like us.”
It is fascinating to see how the mind of a five year old works. My son knows that as Jews we have our own holidays that we celebrate. We don’t do Halloween, Christmas or Easter, and the non-Jews don’t have Chanukah, Pesach and Shavuot. So, in his mind, since we do Thanksgiving it must be a Jewish thing, and therefore anyone who celebrates Thanksgiving must also be Jewish.
His line of reasoning led me to think about a broader phenomenon that I have noticed with Jews and Thanksgiving. Why do religious Jews observe Thanksgiving? Is it not a non-Jewish holiday? Why is it acceptable to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, but it is not considered acceptable for Jews to eat chocolate eggs on Easter or go trick or treating on Halloween?
I think that there is a technical answer to this question, and a practical answer. The technical answer is that a Jew should not engage in practices whose origins come from other religions, and are still associated with those religions. Thus Christmas things are not OK since they are associated with Christianity, but Thanksgiving things are fine because they are not Christianity specific. But I’d like to focus on the practical answer.
If you ask ten Jews on the street what Thanksgiving is about, they will talk about turkey, family and football. If you’re lucky they’ll say that it’s a day to remember to be thankful. But, if your experience is like mine, very rarely will a Jew on Thanksgiving use the three letter word, God.
This, practically speaking, is why Jews don’t take issue with celebrating Thanksgiving. They don’t view is as a religious holiday, but rather it’s a secular day, not much different than July 4th or Memorial Day.
George Washington disagreed. To quote from his proclamation in New York City on October 3rd 1789 (emphasis added):
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”
Thanksgiving was originally established as a profoundly religious day. It’s all about giving thanks to God. It’s not about giving thanks to family, or to bargain deals, or to football.
Perhaps we should try to put God back into thanksgiving! As Jews, we should be thinking about God a lot. As it states in Deuteronomy 4:35, “Ein Od Milvado, there is nothing but God.” We pray three times a day and think about God. We think about God when we make a blessing before and after eating food. We think about God on shabbat and holidays. But do we bring God into the mundane parts of life? Do we invoke the name of God at random family get togethers and social events, or do we only bring in God when the Siddur (prayer book) tells us to? Have we become robots, unable to talk to God or about God whenever we want?
This past week my wife and I attended an awards night at the Gaillard in Charleston. It was a black tie event wherein awards were being given to people from across the Charleston community for their communal service deeds. One lady started a program to visit sick people in the hospitals. One man began a club to mentor troubled teens. The room was packed. There was also a full line up of speakers and entertainment, from the Mayor, to singers, entertainers, and a stand up comic. I was certainly the only rabbi in the room, my wife and I most likely the only Jews. God was also there. Yes, of course God is everywhere, but I mean quite literally, everyone was talking about God. It was not a religious event, or at least it was not advertised as such. But it was profoundly religious. Everyone, from the awardees to the entertainment, spoke about God. I thought to myself that this would never happen at a Jewish awards night.
Had it been an awards night with a room full of Jews, things would have looked very different. We would have talked about tikun olam. We would have spoken with great passion about the need to repair the world, continue the legacy of our parents and the need for unity and diversity. At best someone would have recited a Shehechiyanu at the beginning or sung Hatikvah at the end. I love Hatikvah, and have a deep visceral reaction every time I hear it, but there is no mention of God in Hatikvah.
I’m not sure why Jews shy away from God. I really don’t know. Perhaps it’s because we over intellectualize religion? Perhaps it’s because we have so many mitzvot and such a rich and wide range of rabbinic literature that our “God talk” just sounds very different? But I do know one thing. Every now and then it can’t hurt to take a lesson from George Washington and our non Jewish neighbors here in Charleston. Talk about God. Bring God into everyday life.