Tis not our season to be jolly

An Open Letter to Lord Sacks of Aldgate
Dear Jonathan

I feel compelled to write to you, both as a Jew and as a Jewish husband and father, to express to you the deep unease that I felt on reading press reports of your homily delivered at the Scottish Parliament at the end of last month.

I refer in particular to certain declarations that you reportedly made during the course of your remarks, namely that Jewish and other faith communities "love the fact that Christians celebrate Christmas," and that when you go to Trafalgar Square and hear carols being sung you feel "uplifted".

When I first read of these statements I confess that I was convinced you had been misreported. Perhaps (I thought) you had merely said that Jews celebrated the fact that all faith communities in the UK enjoyed the freedom to express their beliefs freely, in public. Or that you yourself felt "uplifted" by the public celebration of faith. Or that you celebrated and were "uplifted" by the fact that the same freedom which permits Jews to light menorahs in in Trafalgar Square permits Christians to sing carols in that very public place. In short I was convinced that your remarks had been mis-characterised (so to speak) by over-zealous journalists.

It is with deep regret that I have to tell you that I was wrong. Your homily in the Scottish Parliament was picked up by The Times, whose celebrated religion correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, wrote under the headline: "Hark! The Chief Rabbi sings praises of 'uplifting' carols."

Ms Gledhill stands by every word of her report, and tells me that she (very wisely) forwarded a copy of the original report to your office after speaking on the telephone to a member of your staff and that no objection of any kind - not the slightest correction or comment - was offered as to the report's factual accuracy. Indeed I have seen no hint of an objection or complaint by you or your staff as to the veracity of the words attributed to you.

No good ever came to Jews from the birth of Jesus

It is to these words that I now turn. You are in no position (are you?) to speak on behalf of other faiths. If other faiths "love the fact that Christians celebrate Christmas" it is surely for their spokespersons to announce this, not for you to do the announcing on their behalf.

Be that as it may, I must also put it to you that your public affirmation that you feel "uplifted" by the singing of songs celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is bound (I'm sorry to say) to put a question mark over the precise characteristics and parameters of your own faith. After all, "that man" (to use the Talmudic phrase) is regarded by Christians as the Messiah. But not by Jews, other than "Jews for Jesus". As a historian I naturally accept the fact of Jesus's birth. As a Jew I deplore it. No good ever came to Jews from the birth of Jesus. The faith to which his birth, life and death gave rise has brought nothing but torment to the Jewish people. How can you - an Orthodox rabbi - possibly feel "uplifted" by songs celebrating his arrival in this world?

And I should add that some Christmas carols are in any case quite heretical from a Jewish point of view (notably those declaring Jesus to be the son of God), others are antisemitic in other ways ("Good King Wenceslas" celebrates Saint Stephen, an early apostate from Judaism) while yet others are frankly incredible ("Away in a Manger" tells of a baby who does not cry, and who in one verse is in a manger but in another is suddenly looking down "from the sky").

No doubt some of the tunes to which carols are sung are emotionally stimulating. But there are plenty of good Jewish tunes that do the same. For a Jewish cleric in your position to say that you are "uplifted" by Christmas carols is not merely shocking. It seems to me to verge on the blasphemous, coming as it must under the prohibition of chukkas hagoyim - the ways of the Gentiles.

Yours sorrowfully, Geoffrey

    Last updated: 11:46am, December 8 2011