Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Did A Lone Rabbi Mean to Ban Christmas Trees?

By: Michael Medved
There’s an outrageous story out of Seattle (my home base) that shows the way that good intentions can occasionally produce disgusting results. Because of the prevailing climate of political correctness, a decent guy and honorable clergyman looks like a horse’s rear end and has provoked appropriate indignation from millions of people.

According to misleading news stories featured prominently in newspapers and on TV (including KING 5 TV News): “All 15 Christmas trees inside the main terminal at Sea Tac Airport (Seattle-Tacoma International) have been removed in response to a complaint by a rabbi. A rabbi wanted to install an eight-foot menorah and have a public lighting ceremony. He threatened to sue if the menorah wasn’t put up and gave a two day deadline to remove the trees.”

Who is this wretched rabbi who, apparently, wanted to spoil the holiday joy of his Christian neighbors out of pique and selfishness simply because he didn’t get the right to erect his own Hanukah display?

As a matter of fact, I know and like Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, the now notorious clergyman at the center of this swirling controversy. He’s a good guy, a young father of five (including new-born twins), and the son-in-law of the wonderful Rabbi at the synagogue I attend each week. I know that Rabbi Bogomilsky harbors no animus whatever toward Christians or Christmas. In fact he told the Seattle Times that he felt “appalled” by the airport’s decision to remove all its Christmas trees without warning on Saturday night. According to Rabbi Bogomilsky, “Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season.” According to the rabbi’s lawyer, Harvey Grad, “They’ve darkened the hall rather than turning the lights up.”

I spoke to Rabbi Bogomilsky less than a hour ago and he may join me on my radio show tomorrow to apologize to the community at large for the totally unintended consequences of his desire to include a large menorah along with the airport’s holiday decorations (according to various stories there were either 22, or 15, or 9 different Christmas trees before the airport cleared them away in the dead of night). When I asked the rabbi directly whether he would want the trees removed if the airport refused to put up his menorah he insisted, “Absolutely not.” He has no problem with the Christmas trees, which have brought seasonal joy to the airport (and provoked no complaints) for more than a decade. He would greatly prefer that the airport restore the trees – even if they fail to include the requested menorah alongside the seasonal greenery. In fact, another local rabbi and close personal friend, Daniel Lapin, has begun soliciting Jewish signatures on a petition to demand the return of the trees – and we will gladly recruit Jewish volunteers to provide free labor if that would help get the job done.

Those of us who are comfortable and secure in our own religiosity (which would surely include the rigorously observant Rabbi Bogomilsky) don’t feel threatened by public displays of faith by our Christian neighbors. Generally, it’s secular fanatics (of both Jewish and Christian background), militant separationists, who have waged war on Christmas trees, ten commandments monuments, crosses, and other benign symbols of the nation’s religious heritage.

So what went wrong with this whole miserable affair?

After two months of indecision from the Port of Seattle (the quasi-governmental agency that runs the airport) concerning the request for a menorah, the rabbi’s lawyer made the mistake (yes, it was a mistake) of threatening a federal lawsuit and the airport people panicked and ordered the removal of the trees. “We’re not in the business of offending anyone and we’re not eager to get into a federal lawsuit with anyone,” said Craig Watson, chief lawyer for the Port of Seattle. Patricia Davis, head of the Port Commission said, “We didn’t have other cultures represented and rather than scramble around to find representations of other cultures at this late date, we decided to take them down and consider it later.”

This is ridiculous, of course. “Other cultures” do not observe popular holidays at precisely this time (the Islamic month of Ramadan is over) and in thousands of public and private locations across the country the abundant, prominent and very beautiful Christmas decorations are harmlessly complemented (if hardly balanced) by menorahs.

Of course, in the current climate of hyper-sensitivity regarding public expressions of religious commitment, Rabbi Bogomilsky and Harvey Grad should have avoided the chilling, unnecessary phrase “law suit” at all costs --- even if the Port of Seattle refused to give them a timely answer on their menorah request. As a result of the threatened litigation, the whole world is witnessing a horrible situation in which the religious enthusiasm (however well intended) of one individual has led to the removal of decorations enjoyed by literally hundreds of thousands.

In addition to apologizing to those masses, and working conscientiously to restore the Christmas trees, I hope that Rabbi Bogomilsky and his colleagues in the sincere and warm-hearted Chabad-Hasidic movement in Judaism will reconsider their menorah strategy next winter. They’ve already succeeded in magnificent terms in installing some 6,000 highly visible menorahs in public places across the country (including, by the way, the Washington State Capitol in Olympia) – and even at unlikely sites like Red Square in Moscow. This is a singular, even inspriring, achievement. If, however, local authorities prove unwilling to accommodate the menorahs, it’s a terrible idea to try to force their hands by comparing our candelabra to Christmas trees or wreaths or Santa Claus effigies already in place.

Though some of my fellow Jews may howl in protest when I say so, there are strong arguments to be made against public menorahs that can’t be made against Christmas trees. It’s not just that Christians outnumber us in this society by about 40 to 1; it’s that Christmas trees reasonably can be construed as a secular symbol but a menorah (despite some prior court decisions) emphatically cannot. The eight-branched “Hanukiah” or “Menorah” that we light every year for the holiday specifically recalls the seven-branched menorah that was a sacred element in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem up till 70 A.D. Though the big menorahs with bulbs that are prominently displayed in public places are not, strictly speaking, sacramental objects (because they don’t use candles or oil), they distinctly resemble the smaller menorahs we use at home and over which we recite blessings (citing the Almighty, of course) every night of the holiday. In fact, the chief mitzvah (holy commandment) of the Hanukah holiday requires the lighting of these candelabra and reciting the blessings, so it’s deeply misleading or, at best, a stretch, to call the menorah a secular symbol. Christians do not routinely pronounce blessings or recite prayers over Christmas trees.

This doesn’t mean that I think that menorahs should come down from public places: they belong in parks and plazas and airports, shedding the light of their message, but so do nativity scenes and other holiday symbols that bear unmistakably religious trappings. When the founders prohibited “an establishment of religion” they did not mean to banish all faith-based imagery from the public square.

Nor, for that matter, did Rabbi Bogomilsky mean to banish Christmas decorations from the Seattle airport.

Spokespeople for the Port of Seattle say they’re “not in the business of offending anyone,” but when did Rabbi Bogomilsky ever say, or even imply, that he was offended by Christmas trees? As a matter of fact, he welcomes the trees, as do I, as do all people of good will – Jewish and Christian alike.

What offended the rabbi and should offend all of us is the banning of religious symbols, not their presence. The airport may not be “in the business of offending anyone” but they’ve just offended just about everyone with their stubborn, wrong-headed, and utterly misguided decision.

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