Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5778, December 22, 2017

Are Toaster Ovens Jewish?

December 22, 2017

Sally and I recently purchased a toaster to replace our aged and ineffective toaster oven.  We have had it for a week and it is really quite remarkable.  It toasts bread and bagels in under a minute whereas it took the toaster oven ten minutes or more to achieve lesser results.  Our toaster oven is now in the garage waiting to be donated to someone who might want it. So now comes the interesting part- Sally shared this news with two female members of this congregation, one in her sixties and one just forty years old.  They both were astounded that we bought a toaster and said, “How could you do this!  Toasters are goyish!  Toaster ovens are Jewish!”  Now I have been a rabbi for almost forty years and a Jew all my life.  I have never heard of such a thing!  Have you?

If this is even somewhat true, it tells me that boundaries between what is Jewish and non-Jewish are breaking down even faster than I thought.  If the rabbi and his wife can buy a “goyish” toaster, is there any hope for the Jewish people?  I think there is and my remarks over the next few minutes will speak to the fluidity of boundaries and the importance of maintaining a few critical boundaries that help define us.

Our family is probably similar to yours in that we are a microcosm of the contemporary Jewish community.  Last Sunday, we “face timed” with a family Chanukah party in Thousand Oaks, California, just north of Los Angeles, at my sister in law’s home.  In attendance were her three children with spouses/partners, two grandchildren, and my son Benjamin and his friend, Rob.  My sister in law, Natalie, has three adult girls.  The oldest, Sarah, is married to Dov, the son of a famous Los Angeles cantor who wants nothing to do with Judaism or anything Jewish.  They have two young children whose only exposure to things Jewish are at their grandmother’s home.  It is, indeed, sad but it is out of our control.  Her next child is Johanna whose partner, Megan, a non-Jewish woman, was present and enjoying herself.  Her youngest daughter, Marissa, was there with her long term boyfriend, James, who has Jewish relatives but grew up with no religious identity.  James was the one frying the latkes.  Benjamin was there with his Jewish boyfriend Rob.  Everyone gets along very well and had a great time.  We then watched a video of my sister’s son, Michael, and his wife, Ramany, lighting the Chanukiyah with their two little boys, Oliver and Teddy. Oliver, who is three, attends a Jewish pre-school in the Bay area.  Ramany is a first generation Cambodian American who converted to Judaism.  My “Jewbodian” great-nephews are, so far, the most Jewish members of the next generation on all sides of my family.  Fifty years ago we could never have imagined a family so diverse and so content.  All the nieces and nephews, with the exception of Dov, still identify as Jews, but everything else has changed.  We have become quite inclusive and have substantially enlarged our Jewish boundaries.

Many of us invite non-Jewish family and friends to our Seder tables and have them participate in the Pesach ritual.  You should be aware, though, that Pesach is our most particularistic of holy days.  The Torah (Exodus 12: 43-49) tells us that no foreigner shall eat of the Pesach, the sacrificial lamb, but that any slave may eat of it once he is circumcised.  All the strangers who live among us may eat of it once they, too, are circumcised. No uncircumcised person may it of it.  Circumcision, of course, is the physical symbol of being Jewish.  If the boundaries were not strict enough, Rabban Gamliel introduced a theological test into the Seder itself to ensure that Christians would not attend.  During the Seder, we point to the Pesach, matzah, and maror and explain their significance.  This is the only time in any Jewish ritual that an explanation is necessary.  Why? Because Jews who had become Christians would attend Seders and explain these Jewish symbols in Christological terms.  This was the litmus test for the Jewish/Christian boundary.

In our day, it is not that simple.  We have Christian family members and friends, so the old rules simply do not apply.  We invite them as guests to our Seder with the understanding that no theological disputations will take place.  What do we do, though, on Christmas?  Many of us are guests in our Christian friends’ homes for the holiday and that is certainly appropriate.  Is it appropriate, however, for us to bring Christian customs and symbols into Jewish homes?  Regardless of the fact that the Supreme Court refers to the Christmas tree as a secular symbol, for believing Christians it is far more than that.  As my friend, Rabbi John Rosove, has written, “According to many Christian religious authorities, the tree represents the cross upon which Jesus was executed.  The crowning star recalls the star over Bethlehem on the eve of the Christian savior’s birth.  The tinsel represents angel hair.  The bulbs recall the apple on the tree of knowledge and the Christian dogma of original sin.  The holly wreath symbolizes the crown of thorns worn by Jesus as he carried the cross and the berries are drops of blood symbolizing the Christian Messiah’s vicarious suffering for the sins of humanity.  For Jews to appropriate the sacred symbols of another faith tradition for our own use and purposes is a profound act of disrespect.”[i]

We can appreciate the beautiful lights and the lovely music of the Christmas season without appropriating Christmas symbols, for they are not ours to cavalierly adopt for ourselves.  Rabbi Rosove writes “A good rule of thumb for Jews, when questioning whether we should use a non-Jewish symbol, is to ask if that symbol would be appropriate to place in a synagogue lobby?”[ii]  We would all answer, “Of course, it is not appropriate to place a Christmas tree in a synagogue lobby.   That’s goyish!”  Well, our home is as sacred as a synagogue.  Our Tradition teaches that our home is a mikdash me’at, a miniature sanctuary, a place where we aspire to holiness, the venue where Jewish life is practiced day in and day out.  Therefore, it is not appropriate for us to have Christmas trees in our homes.  While we have expanded our boundaries to become more inclusive and diverse, there are some borders that we dare not cross.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

[i] Rabbi John Rosove, blog

[ii] Ibid

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