Santa Claustrophobia

Rabbi and columnist Harold Shulweis of Encino, California calls it Santa Claustrophobia.” He writes:

“For Jews, Christmas time is not quite the season to be jolly. Not that they begrudge their non-Jewish friends the joys of Christmas—but that they feel themselves closed in, pressured by carols and presents and trees associated with christological meaning. For those Jews, Christmas brings on a form of claustrophobia—Santa Claustrophobia.”

Rabbi Shulweis says that the symbols and elements of the Christmas season close in on Jewish people and crowd them. I say that his metaphor is very clever, but it does not quite work. It is not so much that Jewish people feel the elements of Christmas are closing in on them and crowding them in, but that the more Christian elements of Christmas, like manger scenes and carols based on New Testament scripture, are crowding them out—pressing them beyond the periphery of the Christianized majority of western society.

In order to maintain their Jewish identity and be a separate people, the children of Israel have had to become exclusive. In order to relate to one another as Jews, my people have had to exclude non-Jews from the inner circle of Jewish community.

It happens all the time. The Jewish mother says to her son or daughter, “I know that many Gentiles are wonderful people, but you must not date them. To date them is to learn to like them. To learn to like them is maybe to fall in love with them. To fall in love with them is to marry them. Then what will I have for grandchildren? They will be Gentiles, and you will have had a part in diminishing us Jews as a people.”

Jewish children are raised to believe that in this world there is an “us,” meaning the Jews, and a “them,” meaning all the non-Jews. And most of you, the readers of this Newsletter, are among the “them” to most unbelieving Jews. The “us and them” mentality is a defense mechanism against the threat—past or present, real or imagined—of being obliterated as a people.

Before we know Yeshua we cling to certain images that make us want to remain apart. We enshrine memories of persecutions and death camps. We keep alive our negative impressions of the statuary and symbols of some liturgical churches, being all too quick to label them as idolatrous. Indeed such negative images help to justify and sustain us in the separateness we feel necessary for our survival. But other images can threaten that insulative separateness.

It is quite easy to defend oneself against the threats of genocide or idolatry. On the other hand, images of a harmless baby in a manger, an infant king loved by shepherds and wise men and the sounds of heavenly harmony proclaiming “Peace on earth, good will toward men” can be quite disturbing. The very attractiveness of Jesus is the big threat—and I don’t mean tinsel and brightly colored lights and presents. I mean peace, joy, forgiveness, a personal relationship with the loving Creator, a reason for living, and the hope of eternal life. Those things are attractive to a jaded society that desperately needs to get off the treadmill of life onto solid ground—if people allow themselves to consider that it might be true. And the biggest threat of all is that inner question: “Could it possibly be true—could Jesus possibly be the Jewish Messiah the Gentiles believe he is?”

That question is logically followed by the fearful thought, “If we believe it, how will we survive as a people, when for centuries our distinctive has been that Jesus is not for us Jews?”

Because Jewish people often wonder, “Could it be true?,” many feel the need to keep their distance from those who believe in Jesus. They feel that Gentiles who love the Jews and want to share Christ with them pose more of a threat to Jewish survival than Gentiles who are openly anti-Semitic. In that sense, they deem Christians who want to share Christ with them as great a threat as those who seek to do hateful things to the Jewish people.

A Jewish convert to Christianity is called a meshumad. The term literally means “a self-destroyed one.” If the convert is at all accepted to be buried by a Jewish burial society, he must be interred in unsanctified ground that is set apart from the rest of the Jewish burial ground. Most Jewish cemeteries provide such plots which are literally “on the other side of the fence.” These are reserved for unconverted Gentile mates of Jews, for suicides and for those who have converted to Christianity. The convert is seen not only as a person who has committed suicide, but as one who would seek to have other Jews do the same. Hence, even in death, converts are to be excluded from the Jewish community.

This may seem shockingly harsh, and indeed it is. Even so, those who would thus push the Jewish believer in Jesus beyond the boundary of community acceptance are more correct than they realize. There is a great separation, but it is not man-made. It is not the separation of Jew from Gentile. It is the separation of eternal destinies: of saved from lost; of eternal life from the second death. It is the difference between spending eternity with the loving Heavenly Father and being forever apart from him because one has rejected him, opting instead to appease unbelieving family, friends and community.

I don’t blame my people for fighting annihilation. I would fight such a threat right alongside them, to the death. However, I am constrained to tell my fellow Jews that believing in Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah, does not bring annihilation, but life. It is not self-destruction, but renewal.

Believing in him brings everlasting life, the joyous life that God intended for all who would trust him.

Yes, Rabbi Shulweis, many Jewish people do feel the pressures of Santa Claustrophobia. Christmas makes them uncomfortable. But there is nothing to fear from the true Christmas spirit. At Christmas we don’t celebrate Santa’s birthday. We celebrate Yeshua’s birthday. Believing in him does not make us Jews into Gentiles. Believing in him makes us all rejoice because he, the great Reconciler, the promised Messiah of Israel, the Savior of all, has come to enfold us in God’s love. In that love there is no separation. In that embrace there is no crowding. There is no cramping. That perfect love of God in the Messiah casts out fear and brings unity and eternal joy. The angel said to the shepherds, “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” And he was probably not talking to Gentiles when he said that!


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