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A rabbi’s Christmas sermon: May God become incarnate in you

(RNS) Jews believe God cannot become human, and humans cannot become God. But sometimes we transcend that distance through prayer and worship, through the study of sacred texts and through altruistic acts.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

(RNS) My fantasy of the season: It’s the afternoon before Christmas Eve. A clergy colleague from the neighboring church calls in a panic. He’s stuck in an airport and won’t be able to make it back to town in time for the service. “You have to fill in for me,” he pleads.

Gulp.

“Sure,” I say, eager to help out a colleague in distress. “But what do I say?” With that, my colleague’s cell phone runs out of juice, and I’m on my own.

Here goes.

Let’s cut to the chase. This season is not about reindeer, gifts, trees, wreaths, “Jingle Bells” or Santa Claus.

No — this season is about the Incarnation. Christmas claims that God took the human form of a Jewish child, born to refugee parents in a manger in Bethlehem. Because of this child, God is no longer aloof from the world.

(RNS1-JUNE08)  Rabbi Yaakov Rapoport unrolls the Torah scrolls at the Chabad House near Syracuse University, which has applied for $61,876 in federal security grants to install blast-resistant windows, security cameras and other improvements.For use with RNS-SECURITY-GRANTS, transmitted June 8, 2009. Religion News Service photo by Stephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-Standard.

Rabbi Yaakov Rapoport unrolls the Torah scrolls at the Chabad House near Syracuse University. Religion News Service photo by Stephen D. Cannerelli / The Post-Standard

In the words of the Christian novelist Frederick Buechner: “If you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is.” Emmanuel: “God is with us.”

I admit it: I join serious Christians in bemoaning what the Christmas season has become. The “star” of Christmas is no longer the child in the manger. It is, rather, a secularized version of a fourth-century bishop named St. Nicholas, who is incarnated 10,000-fold on street corners and in shopping centers. The mall, rather than the manger, is now this season’s Holy of Holies. Material excess now celebrates the birth of one who cast his lot with the poor and warned against the temptation of riches.

And what about the Jews? What do we think about all this?

Jews believe God cannot become human, and humans cannot become God. But sometimes we transcend that distance through prayer and worship, through the study of sacred texts and through altruistic acts.

I see a hand waving in the back of the church. “Do you mean Jews don’t believe in incarnation at all?”

Well, perhaps. Take the Torah scroll. It contains the five books of Moses, and it is the central focus of Jewish reverence. Even those who doubt that the Torah is the literal word of God will concede that there is something godly in the scroll — the record of the human attempt to relate to God.

That is why Jews treat the Torah scroll with such reverence. It is why they bury the scroll as they would bury a person, and why they fast or donate to charity if they accidentally drop the scroll. It is why Jewish parents cry when their child clutches the Torah scroll at bar and bat mitzvah. And that is precisely why the Nazis took such savage glee in desecrating Torah scrolls. In a profound way, it was their attempt to eradicate the image of God in the world. In a powerful, almost mystical sense, the Torah is the incarnation of godliness in the world.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

That is the lesson of this season. God — or godliness — can become incarnate. Jews might realize that they believe that as well.

As for me, I have my own Christmas minhag (custom). Right before Dec. 25, I call my cherished Christian colleagues. This is what I say: “This year, may God truly become incarnate for you and those you love.”

It is so much better than “Ho, ho, ho….”

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the author of “Righteous Gentiles In The Hebrew Bible,” published by Jewish Lights.) 

YS/MG END SALKIN