A Time to Be Thankful

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Rabbi Boris, November/December 2011

As we settle in to the months after the High Holy Days, we have some time to reflect on what we have gained from this holy season. We have moved from the sweetness of the New Year, to the introspection of Yom Kippur, and had some time to harvest the spiritual fruits of the High Holy Days through the experience of Sukkot. And then we make it to November.

November is often a quiet month. This year, in the Jewish calendar, it is divided between two months – a large piece of Heshvan, a month with no holidays, and Kislev, the month of Chanukah. But of course, the month also brings us the American holiday of Thanksgiving. It is the one day that is celebrated by Americans regardless of religion or cultural background, and as people in the Jewish community, come Thanksgiving Thursday, many of us will take the opportunity to enjoy a festive meal with family and friends.

Today Jews from all denominations celebrate Thanksgiving, but for many years there was a hint of controversy in the Jewish community about whether Jews should be celebrating such a day. In some communities, it was believed that Jews should not participate in “idolatrous” practices done by non-Jews, and therefore, they could not participate in a non-Jewish religious celebration. But was Thanksgiving a religious holiday? Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a preeminent Torah scholar wrote a responsa, a commentary, in the 1950s stating his belief that the holiday was not a religious one. Instead, the issue was that we should make sure not to make it a mitzvah, a commandant, to celebrate it on a yearly basis. According to Feinstein, Jews can have a turkey (or a tofu one), but no one should ever say that they are required to! Other scholars agreed that Thanksgiving was not a religious holiday and could be freely celebrated by Jews. Soon Jews from all across the religious spectrum were celebrating the holiday, safe in the knowledge that sitting down to the holiday meal was permissible according to Jewish law.

But of course, not all of us need the reminder of Jewish law to understand why Thanksgiving can be such a holy day. While it is true that Thanksgiving was historically and remains a non-religious holiday, in many ways, it is at its source a very Jewish day. It is a day about blessing. It is day when we are reminded of the things and the people whom we are thankful for. We give thanks for good food, health and community, but unlike our usual Jewish holidays, we don’t do this through prayer or even by going to a synagogue. Instead, we simply sit, eat, shmooze and enjoy being together. On Thanksgiving we celebrate the bonds of family and community, but also the blessing of living in the patchwork quilt of America.

As Thanksgiving approaches, may the blessings of community that we share with all people bring us joy as we make our way into the cold winter months.