Ask the Rabbi: Must I attend my dad’s family Christmas gatherings?

Dear Rabbi,

I have a sensitive question regarding intermarriage and holidays. Usually I see this addressed from the perspective of parents whose children intermarry. My situation is different.

About 10 years ago my father remarried a lovely woman who happens to be non-Jewish. My husband and I are Jewish, and belong to a Conservative congregation. We celebrate and observe Shabbat on Friday nights in our home, and I seek to raise my two children, almost 4 years old and 5 months, with positive and sensory memories of Judaism woven through their everyday lives. My in-laws are ba’al tshuvah (returnees to Judaism), and I really love experiencing their community and observing Shabbat. Most of my side of the family are Reform, and I am really open to the many ways of being Jewish. I have some relatives who have converted to Christianity, and while that is hard for me to understand, I love them, support them and want them to be happy.

So — here’s my question. I choose not to participate in my dad and his wife’s celebration on Christmas/Christmas Eve. This hurts them very much. They see it as a rejection of my dad’s wife. When I was single, I went to their house a few times on Christmas Eve just to make my father happy, but I was uncomfortable with it. They have a tree, eat dinner and open a lot of presents. Once my husband and I married, we decided that wasn’t for us, but we see my dad and his wife often. They baby-sit occasionally, and we have a good relationship, which took me many years to build after my parents’ divorce. (My mom and her husband are Jewish, so that’s not an issue with them.) So, my dad and his wife don’t ask us to come for Christmas anymore, and I am OK with it, but I still feel bad about it. It’s hard to disappoint parents, but we all make our own choices.

Last year I spoke with one of the rabbis in my congregation about this issue, and she thought I should go, because of the need to honor my parents. I do honor them; I just don’t want a family Christmas tradition in my life. My daughter goes to a secular day-care center. She is very aware that people have different traditions and we respect them. I guess I am asking for a way to feel better about my decision.

Any advice?

Candy

Dear Candy:

Thank you for your question. It is clear from your tone and your words that you sincerely recognize that we each have to find our own soul path in life, that God is found in many different venues, and that Judaism itself is a rich and varied tradition that has many paths.

That having been said, what is key is to allow loved ones to have their own integrity and to resist the urge to turn acquiescence into a test of love. That means that your father and his wife have the right to their integrity — to seek to honor both traditions and to celebrate the holidays of their choosing in the manner of their choosing. But it also means that you and your husband have that same right — to celebrate the holidays of your choosing in the manner of your own choosing. All the more so when the celebration of holidays is a reflection of deeper values, so that our choices are guided by our understanding of God, revelation and community.

It sounds like the tension comes when you confuse whether or not you can celebrate Christmas with integrity (I don’t see how you can while being a faithful Jew) with loving and honoring your father and stepmother. You do have an obligation to honor them. You do not have to attend every gathering they host in order to show that honor.

In this case, I would affirm your decision not to be present — both as a way of honoring the integrity of Judaism and of your family’s devotion, and of honoring your father’s life choices. Meet with them a few days before, or a few days afterward or celebrate the secular New Year’s Day together. But Christmas is a Christian celebration and you do not need to prove your devotion to your father at the expense of your own Jewish integrity.

B’virkat Shalom,

Rabbi Artson

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Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and author of “The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Visions, & Dreams.”