Uplifted by a message of hope

By Marc Saperstein, December 23, 2011
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There has been some debate in recent weeks about the rights and wrongs of Lord Sacks's assertion that he felt "uplifted" by the sound of Christmas carols at this time of year. I can't see what all the fuss is about.

I confess that I find myself feeling uplifted by the soaring architecture and the radiant stained glass windows of the great Gothic cathedrals. I am deeply moved by the music of Bach's St Matthew Passion and the Requiems of Mozart, Verdi and Fauré; by Michelangelo's Pietà and by paintings of the annunciation and the crucifixion; or by the religious poems of John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Is it fundamentally wrong when a committed Jew, even a rabbi, responds in this way to the artistic creations inspired by a religion different from our own, expressing elements of a faith that we cannot accept? Is it "heretical" or "blasphemous" - as Professor Geoffrey Alderman suggested in his recent column - to recognise elements of beauty in some of the religious expressions of our neighbors, while continuing to reject many of their distinctive beliefs? Is it disloyal to admit that our "plenty of good Jewish tunes" cannot compete aesthetically with the music of the Christmas carols?

To be sure, much is unappealing about being in an environment pervaded by the Christmas holiday: the extravagant inebriation of many office parties, the commercialism, the kitsch. These are elements that religious Christians, as well as Jews, Muslims, and secularists, may find distasteful.

There are elements we all find distasteful

But it does not necessarily follow that the Christmas story itself can have no positive message for non-Christians. Let us examine it from a Jewish perspective. The birth narrative in the gospel of Matthew has deep poignance in its Jewish context.

The circumstances presented are so potentially unpromising that it is difficult to imagine anyone fabricating them. A young Jewish woman, betrothed but not yet married, discovers that she is pregnant, though the man to whom she is betrothed has never slept with her. In traditional Jewish society, the meaning of these facts would be clear: the woman must have been guilty of adultery. Jewish law would require that her fiancé divorce her, and the gospel states that Joseph began this process discretely, in accordance with the law. The child would have been illegitimate, mamzer, to be shunned by all.

The gospel narrative takes this potential disaster and gives it a spin that not only neutralises the negative but makes it into an asset. Joseph is assured from heaven, by way of a dream, that his bethrothed is not guilty of adultery; the infant has no human father, her pregnancy is the result of a miraculous divine intrusion into our world.

The belief that this child is the incarnation of God, that he combines humanity and divinity in a unique manner, that he is one person of a triune God, goes far beyond what most Jews can comprehend, let alone accept. The boundary lines between what is ours and what is not ours are clear.

Yet the underlying theme is one of universal resonance: that even in the most miserable of circumstances - a nation dominated by a hostile imperial power, by a tyrannical King Herod who will soon unleash a massacre of infants because of his own insecurity, a couple who are outcasts reduced to bringing a child into the world among animals in a manger - that even when the world is dark and life seems totally bleak, the divine can become manifest to humanity, and hope for redemption can be kindled.

That is a message that Jews and other non-Christians may indeed find to be uplifting without betraying their own religious convictions. To shut ourselves off completely from an appreciation of the religious doctrines, architecture, art, music and literature of Christian culture is not an approach to Judaism that we should encourage.

Professor Alderman said that Christianity "has brought nothing but torment to the Jewish people". It's a claim that strikes me as astonishing, coming from a professional historian, and precariously close to a violation of the commandment: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor."

Rabbi Marc Saperstein is professor of Jewish History and Homiletics at Leo Baeck College

    Last updated: 2:24pm, December 30 2011