Traditional Jewish Life:
Celebrating American Holidays and Jewish Law
Michael J. Broyde
This short posting on what the Jewish tradition has to say about Thanksgiving will strike some as surprising — so a word of background might be helpful. Traditional Jews do not celebrate holidays of another religion and have always shied away from even nominally secular holidays that are really about another religion, such as the federal holiday of “Christmas.”1 I, for example, went to Yeshiva University High School for Boys from 1978 to 1982 and we had religious class on the Federal Holiday of Christmas every year I was a student. On the other hand, secular holidays, such as Independence Day, were always celebrated and were widely understood to be devoid of “religious” meaning, but merely nationalistic holidays that “good Americans” of any flavor could celebrate. Thanksgiving was always a source of religious contention in that it is a uniquely American holiday. It is no longer, and perhaps never was, a celebration affiliated with any particular religion or faith, although some in America celebrate Thanksgiving with religious ceremonies, and it has a form of celebration, a ritual meal, that seems religious. More importantly, Thanksgiving had its origins in the Puritan religion, at least as a matter of legend. On the other hand, it is celebrated by Americans of a broad variety of religious backgrounds.
This paper summarizes the three basic approaches to celebrating Thanksgiving among twentieth-century American authorities of Jewish law. As we will see, one can view this matter as a touchstone for thinking about secular society and the Jewish place in it.
The Approach of Rabbi Hutner
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner was a leading Jewish Law authority in America who died in 1980. He was the head of an important Yeshiva in Brooklyn and ordained countless rabbis.2Among them my own father, Rabbi Dr. Barret Broyde, of blessed memory. Furthermore, he was a leading Orthodox philosopher and one of the first to explore the role of traditional Judaism in America.
Rabbi Hutner argues that it is obvious and apparent that, whatever the merit of celebrating Thanksgiving the first time in the 1600’s, the establishment of an annual holiday that is based on the Christian – rather than Jewish — calendar is, at the very least, closely associated with a faith other than Judaism and thus prohibited. While Jewish always celebrate coronations of kings in the places they lived, these were “one off” celebrations and not yearly events. Rabbi Hunter notes simply:
In truth, one must distance oneself from these types of customs and even from those events that are similar to these types of customs . . . The truth is simple and obvious.
Rabbi Hutner’s point is that “yearly festivals” follow the Jewish calendar and are Jewish. Christian festivals follow the Christian calendar. Thanksgiving is in the Christian calendar. What is most interesting about his view is how distinctly sensitive he is to the idea that the calendar in America is Christian and not secular.
What is clear from Rabbi Hutner’s view – almost a worldview – is that the general secular society in America is Christian and not secular. He has no model really for thinking about a secular society and methods of categorizing it.
The Approach of Rabbi Dr. Soloveitchik
Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who died in 1993, was the leading scholar at Yeshiva University, an institution dedicated to synthesizing the best of the Western ideas to Jewish values and tradition. He was a leading Talmudic scholar in America and an important philosophical thinker. Yeshiva University, where he taught, ordained the bulk of the modern Orthodox rabbinate in American for many years.3 Including this writer. He celebrated Thanksgiving and while he never directly spoke about why, his course of conduct modeled the idea that Thanksgiving was not a Christian, but a secular holiday. A leading student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, in his intellectual biography of Rabbi Soloveitchik, writes:
It was the opinion of Rabbi Soloveitchik that it was permissible to eat turkey at the end of November, on the day of Thanksgiving. …. Eating turkey on Thanksgiving was not a problem of imitating gentile customs. We also heard that this was the opinion of his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik.
Others have also recounted that Rabbi Soloveitchik ruled this way, and that he found it difficult to comprehend how one could consider Thanksgiving a Gentile holiday or that it was prohibited to celebrate it.4 My friend Rabbi Howard Jachter of Brooklyn notes that he explicitly spoke to Rabbi Soloveitchik about this in July 1985, and that Rabbi Soloveitchik affirmed this ruling and did not see any problem with celebrating Thanksgiving. Dr. Avi Feldblum recounted: While I do not know whether Rabbi Soloveitchik had turkey for dinner that night or whether he called it a Thanksgiving dinner, it was well known that on the day that is marked on the calendar as Thanksgiving, Rav Soloveitchik started Talmud class earlier than usual, in order to end earlier than usual and catch the plane back to Boston, to have a festive meal etc. However, it is of interest to note that while Thanksgiving appeared to be of sufficient importance to change the fixed time for Talmud class, it was not sufficient to end class if the Rabbi Soloveitchik had not completed what he wanted to understand. On Thanksgiving 1976, there was the famous Thanksgiving class where Rabbi Soloveitchik spent about five hours (most of it in silent thought) working through one medieval commentator. After the second or third time the sexton passed him a note about the flight [back to Boston, where he lived], Rabbi Soloveitchik turned to him and said “no one can leave here until we have understood what it is that Tosafot is saying!” Letter of Dr. Avi Feldblum, published electronically in mail.jewish, volume 5, issue 20 available in archives at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Letter edited for translation purposed into English.)
Rabbi Dr. Soloveitchik realized that Thanksgiving was a secular American holiday and not pagan. It was part of being a good American, and not only was he religiously comfortable telling his students that “technical Jewish Law permitted its observance,” but he and his family also celebrated Thanksgiving as part of their own social life.
The Approach of Rabbi Feinstein
What has made the Thanksgiving question so fascinating actually however, in the nuanced letters (responsa) of Jewish Law written by the late Rabbi Moses Feinstein who died in 1986 and who was without a doubt the greatest Jewish law scholar in the United States. He has four published responsa on the issues related to celebrating Thanksgiving, all of which conclude that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday, but a secular one. The first responsum, written in 1953/5723, discusses the deliberate scheduling of Jewish weddings and the like on religious holidays of other faiths. Rabbi Feinstein states:
On the question of celebrating any event on a holiday of Gentiles, if the holiday is based on religious beliefs [by the Gentiles], such celebrations are prohibited if deliberately scheduled on that day; even without intent, it is prohibited because of the appearance of impropriety [people will think the Jews are celebrating the day . . . The first day of year for them [January 1] and Thanksgiving is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [balai nephesh] should be strict.
Rabbi Feinstein reinforces his understanding that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday in a responsum published in 1980/5741. He states:
On the issue of joining with those who think that Thanksgiving is like a holiday to eat a meal: since it is clear that according to their religious law books this day is not mentioned as a religious holiday and that one is not obligated in a meal [according to Gentile religious law] and since this is a day of remembrance to citizens of this country, when they came to reside here either now or earlier, Jewish Law sees no prohibition in celebrating with a meal or with the eating of turkey.
Nonetheless it is prohibited to establish this as a Jewish Law obligation or a Jewish religious commandment, and it remains a voluntary celebration now; in this manner — without the establishment of obligation or religious commandment — one can celebrate the next year too with a meal.
Thus, Rabbi Feinstein appears to rule that Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday and that there is no problem of “Gentile holidays” while observing it. Nonetheless, he prohibits its ongoing celebration as an obligation on a particular day, because he feels that it is a prohibited addition to the Jewish calendar or creates a problem of adding commandments. While Rabbi Feinstein’s objections to adding observances will be discussed later on, it is clear that he sees no problem in Thanksgiving’s celebration as a Gentile holiday, and he appears to see no problem with eating a turkey meal on that day as a matter of choice and not obligation.
As proof to the fact that Rabbi Feinstein rules eating turkey permissible, one sees that elsewhere in the same discussion Rabbi Feinstein states:
Thus, it is obvious in my opinion, that even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating Gentile custom. So too, it is obvious that if Gentiles were to make a religious law to eat a particular item that is good to eat, Jewish Law would not prohibit eating that item. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because Gentiles do so out of religious observance.
In fact, Rabbi Feinstein, in a posthumously published letter also written in 1980, seems to state that there is a prohibition to celebrate Thanksgiving, even though he acknowledges that Thanksgiving has no religious content. He views such celebratory activity on Thanksgiving as irrational and, thus, prohibited as a form of imitating irrational secular society. However, a close examination of that letter reveals that the only time Rabbi Feinstein would consider that conduct prohibited is if it was done in the context of celebratory rituals associated with Thanksgiving, perhaps reciting a text or singing a song and not merely eating a meal. Indeed, Rabbi Feinstein, in his fourth and final letter on this topic, recognizes that even this is a stricture, as it is predicated on the approach which argues that secular rituals that have no religious origins are prohibited, which he then states is not the normative Jewish law, which permits secular but not religious ritual.
Why might all of this be interesting to someone who is not a Jewish Law aficionado or a lover of eating turkey? This is the important question. The Jewish experience in the United States of America was almost unique: Jews came to America from nations that had closely integrated their secular governments with their faith, whether in Catholic Poland, Ukrainian Orthodox or even Church of England. America created a secular culture, albeit in a nation that was mostly Christian and which had national holidays, like Christmas, that were Christian.
But, unlike Europe, not everything was Christian – some things were secular and nationalist, and American Jews, even very traditional ones, understood the value of being American. The cultural normativity of the Jewish-American tradition pushed people in the 1950s and 1960s to celebrate American culture when it was consistent with Judaism, which is when it was secular. Rabbi Hutner saw no secular culture, Rabbi Soloveitchik saw positive secular culture and Rabbi Feinstein saw secular culture as optional, but not prohibited.5And maybe encouraged in situations in which positive values are shared. For an example of this, consider the comments of Rabbi Israel Belsky, a Jewish law authority of some renown who died in 2016. These three models of Jewish America are still present to this day–and they can be seen in the various approaches to the Thanksgiving holiday. ♦
Michael J. Broyde is professor of law at Emory University School of Law, a senior fellow and projects director at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. He is a professor at Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies, and was last year a Fullbright Scholar at Hebrew University and visiting professor at Stanford Law School. His primary areas of interest are law and religion, Jewish law and ethics, family law, and comparative religious law.
Author’s note: This posting is derivative from my article of 25 years ago entitled “The Celebrating of Thanksgiving at the End of November: Secular or Religious Holiday?” Published in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 30:44-66 (1995) found here and in a slightly differently version here. This post is without sources, but all the sources can be found in either of these links.
Broyde, Michael J. “Thanksgiving and Traditional Jewish Life: Celebrating American Holidays and Jewish Law.” Canopy Forum, November 25, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/11/25/thanksgiving-and-traditional-jewish-life/