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Religious Repercussions PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
January 2018

It may not be worth it to remove the sacred from symbols

IPix_JayBeskin_1-18f you like glittery open spaces, and if you like cluttery, garish displays, the holidays are the perfect time for you to wander around Aventura, and our neighboring locales like Hallandale Beach and Golden Beach. Here and there, you’ll see that the municipal electric bills are reaching for the sky as elaborate cascades of teeny light bulbs climb trees and poles in the forms of reindeers, sleighs, and Christmas trees.

The occasional menorahs try gamely to fit in, although more often than not, they’re the odd angular shapes favored by Chabad, rather than the supple curvature of design customary to the other 90 percent of Jews the world over.

Nativity scenes used to be a more common sight, but some of them have been directly challenged in courts by separation-of-church-and-state purists, while others have been quietly withdrawn to avoid similar expensive litigation.

Of course, even if every municipality were to refrain from displaying any remotely religious symbol, there would be plenty of parochial Christmas and Chanukah available, adorning the homes and lawns of private citizens. The only real grounds for complaint against a neighbor who gets carried away with turning every visible inch of property into a holiday tableau is when the rampant illumination becomes intrusive to the point that it affects activities like sleep. Even then, most people are reluctant to dun the hyper-celebratory couple next door into a court of law as offenders against neighborly comity.

But when the city does it and uses public spaces and public resources, then that is a horse of a different color, or a reindeer of a different glow. And not only for guys like me who took constitutional law in law school. Even “civilian” citizens trying to navigate their way down the Main Street of life, or even Main Street in Hallandale Beach, can ponder some of these questions. Is it a better idea for us as a nation to stick with the Christmas decoration mode, often extending from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, about a ninth of the entire year?

Until recently the argument of choice has been based on the evolving secularization of the seasonal imagery. In essence, a two-part process is involved. First, an image is leached of its religious significance and turned into a bland nondenominational symbol, ostensibly for some universal good like peace.

You can’t do this to something as stark as a crucifix or a nativity scene, but everything short of that is eligible for this treatment. Take the idea of a St. Nicholas, whose exalted spiritual life in this world earned him the role for all eternity of bearer of rewards to those who have succeeded in completing an exemplary year of nobility and high character.

Over time you can give him a pot belly, a garish red suit, a rumbling laugh, a jolly headquarters in the North Pole, a team of elves to help with packaging, a sleigh that traverses snow and sky, reindeer to do the pulling, and a chimney that somehow accommodates the portly wayfarer.

By the time you’ve tacked on all these addenda, it seems absurd to see him as a religious figure crashing the wall between church and state.

The second step is to argue that this figure is no longer seen as religious, and consequently offers no offense to even the most thin-skinned atheist. Santa is no more likely to pull you into a church than to take you up a mountain somewhere to build a snowman. An image so anodyne, so saccharine, so popularized, so commercialized can hardly be argued to have an impact enhancing religious devotion.

This one-two punch of first denuding Santa of content and then arguing that Santa has no clothes is a sure winner every time in court, but it may have unanticipated consequences.

Look at the case of the Jewish menorah. The original menorah was a devotional object in the holy temples of the Jews. You can see an engraving of it on the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting the victorious emperor carrying it home from his conquest of Judea and destruction of the temple. During the Second Temple, the Jews succeeded in rebuffing Greek control of the temple, and when they relit the menorah after the war, one day’s supply of oil managed to stay lit for eight days.

This experience, believed to be miraculous, was commemorated by instituting Chanukah as a holiday of eight nights, celebrated by lighting a menorah each night.

When Chabad decided about two decades ago to light menorahs in public squares alongside the Christmas decorations, they were taken to court in numerous locales by individuals and organizations fighting for the separation between church and state. Despite some early setbacks, Chabad finally won in the higher courts by using the argument that the menorah was no longer viewed as a religious symbol. In other words, the Jewish menorah celebrating the religious holiday of Chanukah had finally received the full Santa treatment.

It was no longer something holy, a spark of the divine, but it had (with an assist from Adam Sandler) gone down the road of Santa Baby and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. To outsiders this had all the earmarks of the Pyrrhic victory: the menorah scored a spot in the public square, but it had to check its sanctity at the gate to gain admittance.

My readers and friends know that I have been active in support of the American Civil Liberties Union for decades. I did so because I thought that breaking down the barriers between church and state would have troublesome impacts on the state. It never occurred to me when I first started this activism, that those who succeed here and there in sneaking through cracks in the wall could be causing more damage to their church than to the state.

So when I walk the streets of Aventura during this season, or drive them, I often wonder whether they will succeed in maintaining this festive appearance for much longer. I can certainly foresee the possibility that future courts will send the whole lot of them packing: Santa, the menorah, the reindeer, you name it. We may find ourselves limited to bucolic scenes of winter in the forest and other images with no identifiable tracks leading back to religious roots.

This may well provide us with an advantage on both the church and the state sides of the ledger, as explained. But, rational or not, legal or not, I love the streets as they are and will dearly miss them if they go.

 

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