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Final Plea for Jewish, Christian Accord : Christmas: Rabbi dies after expressing his puzzlement over the fact that some Jewish groups protest public religious displays during the holiday season.

December 21, 1991|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — A Jewish scholar who emphasized the deep connections between Judaism and Christianity died last month after penning a last plea for appreciation of those common roots--especially at Christmas.

Frequent absence of that spirit, he said, is truly puzzling.

Rabbi Jacob J. Petuchowski wrote that what particularly intrigued him about the season "is the fact that millions of . . . non-Jewish fellow human beings are celebrating the birthday of a Jewish child.

"And they are doing so by extolling the values of peace and goodwill."

Under the circumstances, Petuchowski wrote, it seems out of place for nominally Jewish organizations to "battle against Christmas symbols in public places."

Yet this happens regularly, he said, "at the very time when the Christian religion, more than at other times of the year, inspires its followers with irenic and philanthropic sentiments."

Petuchowski, professor of Judeo-Christian studies and research professor of Jewish theology and liturgy at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, died Nov. 12 at the age of 66 from complications after heart surgery.

A leader in Jewish-Christian dialogue, he worked for fuller understanding of the close ties of the two faiths. He wrote 36 books, including "The Lord's Prayer and Jewish Liturgy" and "When Jews and Christians Meet."

Writing in the monthly First Things, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, he lamented the "battle waged each winter by various Jewish organizations" against Christmas displays.

He said that although he doesn't celebrate Christmas in his own home, he "likes the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes (of) Christmas."

Petuchowski said those include colorfully decorated Christmas trees and creches in the homes of Christian friends and in public places; the sound of Christmas carols and the pageantry of the papal midnight Mass broadcast on television

However, all this is "a matter of mere externals," he said, adding that the basic point is what's being celebrated.

That, he said, is "the birthday of that Palestinian Jew through whose influence, as noted by the great 12th Century Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, the words of Israel's Torah (the Bible's first five books) have been spread to the far corners of the Earth."

So why, he asked, does the public "celebration of the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, including the public display of replicas of the Bethlehem creche, arouse such Jewish animosity?"

He said the reasons are varied and include the past persecutions of Jews. "Jews have long memories," he said. And to many, "the sign of the Cross is still a reminder of pogroms and persecutions."

That affects their attitudes toward Jesus, he said, but points out that it is not Orthodox and religious Jews who "lead the battle against the public observance of Christmas" but the "secularist of Jewish origin, who has no use for any kind of religion."

"Such Jews seek alliances with all the other secularist forces in the country that want to denude the 'public square' of every last trace of religious influence," Petuchowski wrote.

"They keep insisting upon a strict enforcement of the separation of church and state--enforcement to a degree certainly never anticipated by the founders of the republic.

"They are against the public manifestation of religion per se--even (or perhaps particularly) against the public manifestation of the religion (Judaism) of their own ancestors."

He said the campaign seems to "involve the demand that the state 'establish' the religion of secularism" as the official U.S. religion--a strange distortion of the Constitution's First Amendment.

On that point, he said of past persecutions that "Jews fared infinitely worse in those modern societies from which the God of Abraham and of Jesus had been banished"--Nazism and Stalinist Eastern Europe.

"One could argue, therefore, that the very self-interest of the Jews is at stake in preventing the United States from becoming a totally godless society."

Petuchowski said Jews, while not accepting Christian theology, "can still recognize in the Christian observance of Christmas one of the factors that help maintain the religious character of our society--in which Jews, too, with their own beliefs and practices, and with their very lives, have a considerable stake."

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