Orthospeak, Part 3 – Let’s Talk About Jesus

At some point in my high school years, a Jewish educator who was both a teacher and mentor made reference to “Yoshke“. “Who?”, I inquired. “Yoshke. The person the Christians consider their God.” Fast forward to my children in a modern Orthodox day school. Once again, the name Yoshke, this time used by their teachers, re-entered my world. Background for the uninitiated: Yoshke is a Yiddish sort of diminutive version of the Hebrew names Yeshu or Yehoshua. Not an out-and-out insult. But not respectful.

Apparently, according to Joshua Eli Plaut’s book A Kosher Christmas, Rabbi Eliezer of Metz prohibited Jews from mentioning Jesus’s name in the 12th century. This “prohibition”, coupled with centuries of official Christian animosity towards Jews and Judaism, led to a backlash: strong Jewish anti-Christian sentiment. Yoshke wasn’t even all. I actually know people who will not spell out Christian or Christianity, instead replacing it with X-tian and such. There were even some Orthodox Jews who would spit when they passed a church. And I get it. There were the expulsions of Jews from countries such as Spain and Portugal, promoted by at least a branch of Catholicism and coupled with the Inquisition, a part of the Catholic church. The Talmud I study and the prayer book I used are both volumes that are censored editions, the result of church censorship. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, suggested burning down the synagogues of the Jews, advice that the Nazis and others took seriously. And there was that sweet young boy, whose church group brought him to visit my synagogue, who asked me (then a young rabbi) “Do y’all really have horns?”

The question isn’t: Do Jews have the right to be bitter?  We most certainly do. The question really is, however: Does the Judaism we profess cause us to rise above our bitterness?  My answer to that question is also: is most certainly does.

My Judaism is one that seeks to add value to the lives of Jews, and also adds value to a world that needs its best wisdom. In that world, which is the world that I and the vast majority of Jews live in, there is a quid pro quo. If we want to be understood and valued by others from other faith communities, we had better get serious about understanding, valuing and respecting the beliefs and practices of those communities.

In my house, Jesus is the name of the Christian God as well as the name of a Judean who once lived. Jesus. Not Yoshke. The response to someone who wishes me a Merry Christmas is either “While I don’t celebrate it, I wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas, and hope that your wishes for a time of peace on earth are realized.” Or, if I don’t have time for that version, as least a friendly “Merry Christmas to you”.

There is wisdom and value in  a good many Christian teachings. And yes, more than a little of that wisdom found its way to Christianity through the Judaism of the religion’s founders. So in the Jewish tradition of forgiveness and the Jewish mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor as themselves, a Merry Christmas to my friends and neighbors.


One response

  1. It’s an interesting question for me. I for one have no issue with using Jesus (it works both as a historical reference AND an imprecation!) or wishing people a Merry Christmas.

    That said, there’s a limit to my cultural acceptance. There remain deep elements within the Catholic church that are if not anti-semitic, at least very ambivalent about Jews. We should perhaps get past our leftover issues with Christianity (and certainly our ignorance of it) but there’s still reason to doubt the relationship.

    In the end the Yoshke and the X-mas are at worst infantile superstitions and for some I guess a small middle finger to a Church that caused so much suffering in our history.

    [EDITORIAL NOTE: I posted this originally on Facebook but at the good RAV’s request I’m adding it here. There’s a layer of FB snark that may not translate well here, but…]


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