Last year there was a lot of discussion about the connection between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah because the two holidays coincided. However, it is important to note that Judaism and Thanksgiving are related regardless of Hanukkah. Thanksgiving and Judaism may have very well been joined at the inception of this holiday.
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Sukkot – our harvest festival – might be the basis for Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims saw themselves as the New Israelites escaping religious persecution in England, their "Egypt," and creating a new home for themselves in America, their "Israel." Sukkot marks the time when the Israelites wandered in the desert – on their way to Canaan after escaping slavery. The Pilgrims could have very well seen their story reflected in the holiday of Sukkot. When they achieved a successful harvest, they perhaps looked at their Bibles (Deuteronomy 16:13-15) and learned that Sukkot is a harvest festival. (Dr. Lillian Sigal in "Thanksgiving: Sacred or Profane Feast?" Mythosphere, 1.4 1999: 454-455.) It could have given them a blueprint for their own “modern” celebration of freedom.
Setting aside the possible origins of Thanksgiving, there are a number of examples in modern Jewish Teshuvot (responsa literature - texts which analyze new Jewish legal questions that were not addressed in previous codes of Jewish law) in which rabbis deal with the religious permissibility of celebrating Thanksgiving. They focus on the question of whether the celebration of Thanksgiving constitutes engaging in a non-Jewish religious experience.
While it is true that Thanksgiving began as a Christian holiday, clearly by the latter part of the 20th century (and maybe earlier) it was more of an American tradition with no religious significance. Therefore, regardless of what these rabbis wrote, they were clearly wrestling with the question, “Should we really be involved in something that is so integral to the non-Jewish, mainstream American experience?”
It is worth noting that, at the same time that these rabbis were debating the appropriateness of Jews celebrating Thanksgiving, the majority of American Jews already intuitively understood the power of the holiday. The film, “Avalon,” directed by Barry Levinson, illustrates this point beautifully. The movie tells the story of the Krichinsky family in Baltimore from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. While it is obvious that this is a Jewish family, the family never refers to itself as Jewish in the screenplay, nor do they celebrate any Jewish holidays, rituals or life cycle events, with the exception of a funeral. The holiday we do see is Thanksgiving, and it takes place throughout the life of this family. During Thanksgiving dinner, the relatives talk about how they came to America from Eastern Europe and how, after establishing themselves, they were able to bring the next relative over. The Thanksgiving meal is turned into a Thanksgiving Seder of sorts, recounting the story of their personal exodus from Eastern Europe to America.
They even remark about how they eat different foods on this holiday. In other words, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” That is the same question asked at the Passover Seder, which references the differences between the everyday meal and the singularity of the Seder.
There should be no surprise in the way Jews gravitated toward Thanksgiving. The pull began at their first encounter. Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York – and the first synagogue established in America in 1654 – wanted to connect the experience of being Jewish and American. So when President George Washington called for an official day of thanksgiving in 1789, according to the synagogue's web site, the clergy decided to apply Jewish liturgy to Thanksgiving. They selected various sections from Hallel, a prayer recited on certain Jewish holidays.
Similarly, many other synagogues have developed Thanksgiving services over the years, several combining for joint celebrations, or even Ecumenical services, where Jews partner with other religions to create a service that respects all faiths, regardless of affiliation; these types of services have added a universal dimension to the holiday. How ironic considering that the Thanksgiving story that we tell and retell is that the pilgrims left England in search of religious freedom. However, despite that motivation, they themselves were guilty of the same offense – imposing a theocracy in America (Dr. Nick Rutt "How the Religious Right Views History – And Why" Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 72.2/3 1989:528). Even those who have been oppressed forget these lessons too quickly.
This year, let's celebrate Thanksgiving with a mindfulness as to how this holiday can join us, and how – perhaps, not surprisingly – the common denominator, regardless of one’s beliefs, is bountiful food and family around the table, to mark our gratitude and deep sense of blessing – for freedom, prosperity and community. Happy Thanksgiving.
Rabbi David Kalb is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Central Synagogue in New York.