In 2012, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a fatwa had been issued by one Imam against Christmas, warning that is it a sin to wish people a Merry Christmas. But this view was been rejected by the Mufti of Australia who asserted that “there is a difference between showing respect for someone’s beliefs and sharing those beliefs”.
There have been no sermons in the Australian Jewish community about Christmas greetings. Yet, this kind of thinking is evident in old Jewish texts including one published in Venice in 1565. Rabbi Joseph Karo states that “It is forbidden to enter the home of an idol worshiper on the day of his celebration and wish him peace, however if he found him outside it is permitted but he should say it in a soft tone and a heave head”.
On the other hand, prioritising interfaith relationships is encouraged by an equally authoritative scholar know as the Rema who argues that “it can cause hatred if we (Jews) separate ourselves from them (our non-Jewish neighbours) on the day of their celebration…therefore if one enters the city and he finds them rejoicing on the day of their celebration he should rejoice with them”. One Australian Rabbi I spoke to told me he has never been asked about Christmas greetings, and thought of it as being more about family and shopping than religion for most people. I don’t see many Australian Jews seeking a ruling on this so I am not offering one.
Like the Rema, the Mufti is quoted in the article as stating “we are required to have good relations with all people, and to congratulate them on their joyous events is very important.” Yet I think a mature society should be, and in fact generally is, able to have good relations even with people who don’t feel right about the greetings. I wonder if anyone would think it intolerable for a Tony Abbot supporter to refuse to congratulate a Turnbull supporter for the successful leadership challenge. If a non-Christian sees Christmas as a celebration of Jesus and claims about his divinity that they don’t approve of, it should be met with tolerance.
In the same way, we should tolerate someone who disapproves of Islam or Judaism and does not wish to pretend otherwise. For example, I always feel uncomfortable when people who are not Jewish are requested to wear a religious hat when entering a Synagogue. The little cap is designed to make a statement that the individual in question might not feel like making.
Overall, I am inclined toward prioritising relationships and expressing goodwill between neighbours of different faiths. Many people would find it hard to accept an argument that “Merry Christmas” cannot simply mean “I like you and respect you” and I wish you well” rather than “I agree with your theology”. On the other hand, words don’t have one fixed meaning, they mean whatever it is that someone thinks they mean.
A commitment to relationships includes advocating tolerance for views and approaches that are different to one’s own. If someone has a problem with saying Merry Christmas, we should be able to handle that as long as there is a more general attitude of goodwill and respect. We must agree without enmity. That is what tolerance is.
By Rabbi Zalman Kastel