Saturday, November 24, 2007


Thanksgiving is a rather peculiar holiday. It is perhaps America’s most significant truly secular holiday, where millions of American of all faiths and creeds travel hundreds of miles to be with their families. Thanksgiving may have had religious origins in America’s early seventeenth century settlers, but today is no more religious than July 4 or Mother’s Day. It’s a holiday that’s just about eating and seeing family – a holiday that even agnostic Americans can enjoy without any guilt of what other observances their avoiding.

Some people link Thanksgiving with Christmas and Valentine’s Day as fundamentally secular, American holidays. In short, however, Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, an event that is not part of Jewish culture, just as Valentine’s Day comes from another Christian figure. No amount of American commercialization of either holiday can change either of those facts.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is celebrated in full force by Americans of all faiths and creeds, including Jews of every observance level. For traditionally observant Jews, Thanksgiving is a peek into how the rest of world observes holidays. There is no rush to getting to one’s destination by sunset, no mad dash to get all of the cooking and preparations done by a certain time, and no portal back into the early 19th century before video games and movies. It’s a holiday where shopping and football watching are permitted.

This doesn’t answer the question, though, of why Orthodox Jews, many of whom refrain from other forms of American modernity (e.g. television), still celebrate Thanksgiving. The best answer comes from Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, a leading Orthodox authority in the United States during the 20th century. Rabbi Soleveitchik lived though persecution in Europe, before immigrating to the United States. He celebrated Thanksgiving because he was thankful for the United States of America, his refuge and adopted new home. That is certainly something we can all be thankful for.

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