By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
There exists a Jewish backstory to Thanksgiving! In connection with this holiday, we can observe the alignment of national customs with Jewish values and practice, a pattern that marks the distinctiveness of American Jewish behavior.
Unlike other holiday observances, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity for Jews to express their Americanism in consort with their Judaism. Over time this has taken different forms of expression.
Several American Presidents have helped to formally frame its national observance. George Washington designated November 26, 1789, a day of thanksgiving and prayer, as it would “mark the adoption of the Constitution and the establishment of a new government.” During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed an annual national holiday, to be held on the last Thursday in November, as a “day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.”
When Pennsylvania’s Governor, John Geary, offered in 1868 a correlary proclamation that appeared to exclude “Israelites,” Philadelphia’s rabbinic leaders condemned this breach of religious freedom, arguing that Thanksgiving must be seen as a national holiday, devoid of specific religious content or reference.
Presidents have regulated issued proclamations in connection with Thanksgiving. Theodore Roosevelt offered the following:
Never before in our history or in the history of any other nation has a people enjoyed more abounding material prosperity than is ours; a prosperity so great that it should arouse in us no spirit of reckless pride, and least of all a spirit of heedless disregard of our responsibilities; but rather a sober sense of our many blessings, and resolute purpose, under Providence, not to forfeit them by any action of our own.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 formally moved Thanksgiving one week earlier in November, and in 1941 Congress established the observance of Thanksgiving as a legal holiday.
American Jewish Practice:
During the 19th century, houses of worship kept open their doors holding formal services in celebration. In the later half of that century, interfaith worship services, acknowledging American civic and cultural values, became a common practice.
Sometimes, in the expansive spirit of the day, Jews and Christians would hold a joint service. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, in November 1879, for instance, a local congregation of Jews got together for an hour or so with the Unitarians on “national turkey day,” while in Philadelphia several years later, a local Protestant minister occupied the pulpit of Mickve Israel and delivered an address. Focusing on what they had in common rather than on the “doctrinal points” that kept them apart and at arm’s length from one another, America’s clergy and congregants alike seized the opportunity to strengthen the bonds of neighborliness and to “set the seal of religion upon [their] patriotic emotions.” In the process, they also sought to demonstrate that the “national religion is not Christianity – but whatever each American professes for himself,” or so optimistically related the Jewish Messenger in 1873.
While such interfaith expressions would lose their significance in the later decades of the 19th Century, such shared worship experiences would resume again during the middle decades of the 20th Century in various parts of the United States. Such interfaith expressions allowed Jews to demonstrate their common religious aspirations with others.
As social and cultural behaviors shift, Thanksgiving has taken on features reflective of these changes. Increasingly, Jewish organizations have taken this opportunity to engage with specific causes and projects. In a survey of Jewish educational, cultural and religious institutions, the following reflect the types of activities now underway in connection with this holiday:
- Educational Initiatives and Special Thanksgiving Messages
- Social Action Programs and Civic Actions
- Voluntary Engagement Efforts with Food Pantries and Homeless Shelters
- Fundraising Opportunities Highlighting Specific Causes
- Special Weekend Programming for Families and Youth
These Jewish practices reflect the growing recognition that such public holidays encourage religious institutions and civic organizations to further their overall mission in consort with broader cultural values centered on the observance of Thanksgiving.
Beyond the communal, Judaism’s family-based customs align particularly well with Thanksgiving’s generic focus on home-oriented celebrations. Reflecting on the Passover tradition, leaving a place at the table for the stranger, has become an added custom reminding guests of the homeless and hungry in our midst. A Thanksgiving Seder and other special blessings and ceremonies appropriate for this occasion have been created. Drawing upon Succoth, various other home-oriented customs have been incorporated.
“Table Toasts” provide an opportunity for those who have gathered to acknowledge with thanks those persons and organizations that have made a difference in their lives. Similarly, the introduction of “offering thanks” by writing messages and mailing these “special thank you notes” has also become another new practice.
In recent years there has been specific attention paid to identifying Jewish prayers that align with the message and meaning of Thanksgiving:
“Thanksgiving … contains the best of what it means to be an American – gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity – faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.”
Finally, on the culinary side, this holiday comes with an array of kosher and health-conscious Thanksgiving recipes, as numerous websites offer different products and preparations in connection with varying lifestyle and religious practices. Several are referenced here.
Some ultra-Orthodox Jews have elected to by-pass this holiday. As certain rabbinic authorities find this celebration to be tied to Christianity, they have counseled their constituents not to observe Thanksgiving. Rav Yitzhak Hutner wrote that Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday, and Jews should not celebrate it in any way because the original celebrants invoked Christian themes in connection with its observance. As a response, one finds some yeshivas and schools open on Thanksgiving. Agudath Israel of America, the leadership and policy body for “Yeshivish Jews,” has frequently convened its annual convention during Thanksgiving week. Indeed, some Jews, including certain Yeshivish Jews observe Thanksgiving in connection with Shabbat on the following evening.
However, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein offered a different ruling: “I really believe Thanksgiving today is a secular holiday and not a religious holiday. The focus is more on secular values, and values do not make it more forbidden. Look, people can celebrate Thanksgiving differently. It doesn’t even have to be about giving thanks. I think the focus is more on having strong family bonds that unfortunately many Americans don’t have today.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik would endorse this halakhic position as well.
This holiday has undergone a two hundred and fifty year evolution. As with other generic celebrations, Jews have added certain distinctive and meaningful elements in their observance of Thanksgiving. This festival provides a particularly significant opportunity to observe the melding of Jewish and American values, customs and practices.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.