On the night that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of the things he said/did during his life among us - especially as it relates to things that are topics of discussion today.
On Christmas Eve, Christians will be gathering with families, feasting and opening presents and maybe even attending church services. Meanwhile, what will Jews be doing? Some will be tearing toilet paper. In a 2009 piece, Benyamin Cohen explained the history of Nittel Nacht. The article is reprinted below.
‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Jews were playing dreidel, being celibate, and tearing toilet paper. Allow me to explain. Please.
The Jewish community has long had a tense relationship with Christmas. You wouldn’t know it by the two main customs observed by many 21st-century Jews on Dec. 25: eating Chinese food and being the first to see the Christmas blockbuster. But less well-known are the more historic—and, to be blunt, more bizarre—Christmas Eve customs that Jewish communities have kept secret, even from most Jews. As a public service announcement, I’m here to let you in on what the rabbis thought about Christmas Eve. Gather round, little ones. This is a scary tale.
The Talmud, with its share of rabbinic repudiations against Jesus, was never a big fan of Christmas. Call it the Grinch. Indeed, the rabbis looked at it as a day of mourning—perhaps due to the suffering that Jews encountered in Jesus’ name throughout history. And Christmas Eve—named “Nittel Nacht” by Jewish scholars in the 17th century—took on a life of its own. Some Jewish mystics were under the impression that many apostates were conceived on Christmas Eve (which is one reason the rabbis forbade sex on Dec. 24; more on that later). In Europe, the Jewish community was victim of more acts of violence on this night. All in all, it didn’t end up being a festive evening for Jews.
And so the rabbis decreed that the public study hall be closed and that no Torah learning take place on this night. I guess it’s our version of “Silent Night”—literally. The edict came about partially because of pogroms, but the leaders were also concerned about the popularly held belief in Judaism that studying the Torah brings spiritual benefit to the world at large. Many didn’t want to make this positive contribution on what they considered a “pagan” night.
Although there is no exact demarcation as to the genesis of this odd holiday, the renowned Talmudist Rabbi Samuel Eides (commonly known as the Mahrasha in Torah circles) observed Nittel Nacht as early as the late 1500s. The Baal Shem Tov, a famous Jewish mystic and the founder of Hasidism, popularized the holiday in the 1700s. Many rabbis after him added on their own special rules. By the mid-1900s, when Judeo-Christian relations matured, the Christmas Eve customs fell mostly by the wayside as the Jewish community wanted to show their support for their Christian neighbors. While there are still some Orthodox groups that observe Nittel Nacht, these are not widespread customs among modern Jews. Indeed, in doing research for this article, I found that asking for information on Nittel Nacht was sort of equivalent to asking for directions to the nearest Freemasonry.
Although Torah study was forbidden, some privately studied what’s called Toledot Yeshu—a medieval manuscript that tells the story of Jesus from a non-Christian perspective. A few didn’t even sleep on Christmas Eve for fear that they might dream about Torah study. It’s probably the only time the rabbis would prefer visions of sugarplums dancing in your head. Hassidic legend says that dogs, often and quizzically seen in ancient Jewish texts as a symbol of evil, appear to those who study Torah on this night.
The holiday season, especially Christmas, often exists as a symbol of hope and joy in the Christian community. But this may not be true for all believers. According to a recent study completed by Lifeway Research , one in four American adults suffer from mental illness, and the Christian church is no exception.
The study indicated that although nearly half of evangelical Christians believe that mental illness can be overcome by “Bible study and prayer alone”, the thinking behind this belief is evolving. Whereas in 2007 evangelical writer and musician Carlos Whittaker was told by his pastor to not even speak about his struggle with anxiety, this year, prominent pastor Rick Warren hosted a day-long conference on addressing mental illness in partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
As part of the Guardian’s recent examination of how evangelical Christian churches address mental illness , we asked our readers to submit their stories about their own experience with mental illness or how their individual church discussed it.
Pope Francis blasted the Vatican’s top bureaucrats at an annual Christmas gathering, accusing the cardinals, bishops and priests who make up the Curia of “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and of lusting for power at all costs.
“Sometimes, [officials of the Curia] feel themselves lords of the manor — superior to everyone and everything,” Francis told the Curia’s assembled members, according to Vatican Radio, which carried a report of the meeting titled “Pope Francis: Christmas greetings to Curia.”
The Curia, the administrative body of the Roman Catholic Church, is dominated by Italians who oversee the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Francis, an Argentine, is the first non-European to hold the papacy in more than a millennium. The former Cardinal had not worked in the Curia before his election; he has made reform of the Vatican a major part of his agenda.
“The Curia needs to change, to improve. … A Curia that does not criticize itself, that does not bring itself up to date, that does not try to improve, is a sick body,” he said.
There are those who worry about his future. I’d simply remind them that he survived decades in the hell on Earth of the Argentine Junta. The Cardinals have far more to fear than he does. May the good lord keep him safe and in his job for decades to come.
God bless you, Bishop Francis of Rome.
The 15 ailments of the curia are here in translation: townhall.com
Louisiana Governor’s Prayer Rally Will Bring Together Despicable Christian Leaders to Accomplish Nothing
Americans United for Separation of Church and State made clear that Jindal had completely crossed a line:
When you became Governor, you swore an oath to support the Constitution and laws of the United States. The invitation letter makes a mockery of that oath by flagrantly violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Governor Jindal, you were elected to represent all of your constituents, not just the Christians. Your proselytizing letter under the seal of your office and the State of Louisiana represents a flagrant disregard for large portions of your constituency, and of the requirements of the Constitution of the United States. For these reasons, we ask that you withdraw this invitation and all governmental support from “The Response — Louisiana.”
The next problem is that a prayer guide that was offered up on the rally’s website (since removed) blamed gay marriage and abortion for natural disasters. Because advancements in civil rights caused Hurricane Katrina.
The unjust mandate forced upon the nuns, which threatens their works of justice, is a prime example of how the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church misuses its power to diminish the voice of women.
Catholics deeply value the prophetic witness of women religious and appreciate their commitment to social justice. The behavior that Cardinal Gerhard Müller recently exhibited toward the leaders of the LCWR and Dr. Elizabeth Johnson CSJ is deeply concerning. It is time to stop bullying Catholic women leaders.
“Sorry, folks. This is not a controversial document,” Mother M. Clare Millea, an American nun who directed the investigation, said at the news conference. Instead, she said, it was “a challenge for all of us.”
If anything, the report may help spur the process of including women in more decision-making roles in church life, some church observers said. According to the report, some nuns felt that bishops and priests did not welcome their opinions on “pastoral decisions which affect them or about which they have considerable experience and expertise.”
The report concluded by citing Pope Francis’ call “to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church.” But it did not make any concrete suggestions.
Wenona and Travis Rossiter, convicted of manslaughter in the death of their 12-year-old daughter, were each sentenced to 10 years in prison Friday.
Syble Rossiter died in February 2013 of a treatable form of diabetes. Her parents opted to use prayer instead of medicine for the girl, and were convicted in the case in November.
The Rossiters are members of the Church of the First Born, whose members believe traditional medical treatment is sinful.
Another day, another phony outrage from the Religious Right. This time, the Family Research Council (FRC) and the American Family Association (AFA) are claiming that a U.S. Army chaplain was punished for simply sharing his faith at an official event. But as usual, these fundamentalists aren’t telling the whole story.
Last month, Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn, a captain and the official chaplain of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion, conducted a session on suicide prevention at Fort Benning in Georgia. Attendance at the event was mandatory, giving Lawhorn a large, captive audience.
FRC Executive Vice President William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a retired army general, claimed that Lawhorn “gave a presentation describing resources - both spiritual and secular - that were available for handling such grave mental health situations…” but “[a]s a result of the chaplain’s discussion of his faith, he was called into his brigade commander’s office on Thanksgiving Day.”
Boykin is the kind of person who tends to get himself in trouble whenever he speaks. Earlier this year, he received a harsh reprimand from the Pentagon for revealing classified information in his 2008 book Never Surrender: A Soldier’s Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom. He also tends to say some pretty nasty things about Islam.
Now it seems Boykin has stepped in it once again since Lawhorn did a lot more than just have a “discussion of his faith.”
According to the Army Times, Lawhorn engaged in full-on Christian proselytizing, handing out pamphlets that prescribed biblical treatments for depression. Such actions at a mandatory meeting are a major First Amendment issue, and Lawhorn’s superiors rightly took this matter seriously and acted swiftly.
In Lawhorn’s official letter of reprimand from Col. David Fivecoat, who oversees Lawhorn’s unit, the chaplain was “perceived to advocate Christianity and used Christian scripture and solutions. [He] provided a two-sided handout that listed Army resources on one side and a biblical approach to handling depression on the other side. This made it impossible for those in attendance to receive the resource information without also receiving the biblical information.”