Secular Avodah Zara

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In Parshas Toldos, Yaakov Avinu shows great hesitancy at the ruse of his mother to dress up as his brother to receive the Brachos. The Medrash teaches that Yaakov feared to appear like one who worshipped Avodah Zara.

The Bobover Ruv brings the Alshich HaKadosh on Yisro to answer regarding Yaakov Avinu’s fear. If one where to bow down to a king’s minister, it’s not likely the king would be offended. So why is HaShem so inflamed by Avodah Zara? What’s the issue of bowing down to the stars or other religions? The connection here is that while the king wouldn’t mind a servant bowing to a minister, the king himself would be offended if he were forced to bow to the minister. This would be, as the Ruv comments, “the greatest form of mored b’malchus, a rebellious act against the throne.”

Every Jew bears a Neshama Kedosha, a Chelek Elokai Mima’al, a soul whose essence is sheer G-dliness.

The Bobover Ruv

Therein is the issue. While the servant could bow to a minister, a yid cannot bow to anything or anyone other than HaShem, since the result of bowing would be forcing the King of Kings (our Chelek Elokei Mima’al) to bow to that person or object. And that’s why Avodah Zara is so intolerable to HaShem.

Which brings up a relevant issue for this week.

This season is always awkward for observant Jewry. We’re currently in the month of Cheshvan, which many attach “mar” to the front of it to indicate there are no holidays in this month. It’s a great time to reflect and establish our new kabbalos has consistent. In the month of Kislev, there is but one holiday, which is Chanuka. There’s only one time of Jewish celebration that appears between these dates on our calendar and that’s Rosh Chodesh. 

So, it goes to say that this year in particular is a unique experience where we will say Hallel for Rosh Chodesh on the same day as Thanksgiving, but they have nothing to do with each other, chas v’shalom that someone would make that mistake. 

I’d like to make the unoriginal claim that to celebrate the holidays of the nations around us is not befitting a servant of HaShem. Some people may be at that level, but it’s not a thing to be proud of – it’s an area to grow in. I don’t condemn those that do need growth in this area. After all, I need infinite growth in many areas. But I do think it’s good to recognize that growth is nonetheless needed. 

There have been those before me that have argued against the holidays, including secular ones, and many who matir them. There are certain days, such as nittel, that it’s clear it’s inappropriate to celebrate, and there is a strong minhag to not even study Torah during parts of the day so that there is no zechus to the evil essence and history of that day. As a result, it’s highly appropriate to play chess nittel nacht and wait until after chatzos to begin one’s learning seder. 

The days that are less clear cut to many, however, are those that many deem more “secular” in nature. In reality, there are no secular holidays. These days include the American Independence Day, Thanksgiving, New Years, and more. Let’s review them.

The first one to address. which is by far the easiest, is New Year’s Day. New Year’s was intentionally set on the calendar to occur 8 days after nittel, to represent the “bris” day of yeshka (may his name be erased). As a result, this is a historically religious holiday, even if today it is secular (seeing a overweight man in red pajamas climb down a fireplace doesn’t ring to be too religious either but we still recognize it’s assur). 

American Independence Day is representative of the day that America recognizes as liberation from England. This revolution/rebellion against England is not relevant to Jewish life. Yes, many Jews have found freedom and life on America’s shores, but that’s thanks to Hashem, not mankind. Let’s not misunderstand and give wrong credit here. The notion of having a barbecue and celebrating the greatness of a nation that doesn’t serve HaShem is baffling to me. Even more, when one recognizes that these are all avodos for the American Civil Religion, it’s an even bigger issue. 

American Civil Religion?

As I learned in my doctorate program of semiotics, there is no such thing as a non-religious individual. Everything we do, say, and engage in has to do with avodah. But what is the avodah? Is it to HaShem, or something else? 

There is a concept of national pride, which to be honest a Jew shouldn’t engage in except when it comes to the monarchy of eretz yisroel, which even that we lack today. We are supposed to live in the Land, have a king, and that king writes a sefer Torah and consults the Kohen Gadol on actions, and we are also supposed to have a Temple. All the focus is on Torah and mitzvos, serving HaShem. 

Right now, there’s no clear kohanim. No observant king. No Temple. It’s not how it’s supposed to be, which is why no matter where one lives right now, we are in Galus. 

Any and all national pride outside of this is not one that glorifies HaShem. Rather, it is a poor substitute for what it should be. When it comes to the incense offering, the ketores, for the Temple, we can’t substitute anything or it’s possul. So too, we should not substitute here. National pride has become a form of avodah, and not one directed to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. 

America has a Civil Religion (I’ve discussed this before here and here), and if you don’t believe me, just look at the MAGA craze of recent years. The Proud Boys, BLM, obsession with standing for a pledge of allegiance, and rules governing how the flag is treated are all clear indicators that there is an avodah. So what’s the civil religion?

A proper religion has a clear religious authority, forms of worship, liturgy, holidays, and a Temple. So let’s break it down, and this can apply very easily across borders:

  • Religious Authority – political parties, commentators, talking heads, the news cycle
  • Worship – concerts and ball games, elections
  • Liturgy – reading the news, keeping up on pop culture
  • Holidays – civil national holidays, semi-religious holidays (examples include Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Oktoberfest, nittel, etc.). There are no real “secular” holidays in light of this.
  • Temple – stadiums and arenas

These are only some examples. The idols of the nation are the political leaders, ball players, and pop sensations. The worship services in their temples are the games, concerts, assemblies, and elections. Their holidays are on the calendar as “national.” They even have their own Shulchan Aruch, consisting of how to treat the flag, which days are which customs, how to dress, how to behave, a pledge in the mornings, etc. 

The last one I’m addressing here, which is the most timely one, is Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is a memorial that I’m surprised hasn’t been canceled yet. The pilgrims with the Indians is not an accurate portrayal, but what clearly is accurate is that the pilgrims were either deists or Christians of some form. It became a minhag klal America to engage in this holiday as a remembrance of discovering the holy land, America. Many churches and religious organizations today highly promote Thanksgiving as a Christian holiday, and if the sect that founded it still lays claim to it today, I think that’s reason enough to believe there’s a clear association to it. 

The main arguments I have received from people in favor of Jews celebrating Thanksgiving are as follows:

  • It’s a fun time for family to get together and make memories
  • It’s a time to have a nice meal with people you love
  • It’s a parve holiday to enjoy

All of these arguments are poor imitations of reality. For the yid, there’s yontif, and there’s Shabbos. Every week we have the opportunity to get together as a family and as friends, have a nice meal, and celebrate. Therefore, the reasons to do Thanksgiving are null since Shabbos is the true time for kiddush and seudah throughout the year. The focus of the celebration itself is the proof that the holiday isn’t parve. Whereas Shabbos is recognizing the kedusha of the day and celebrating our relationship with HaShem, engaging in Torah and rest, Thanksgiving is celebrating each other, and the Borei HaOlam is nowhere to be found in the course of the meal.

At the very worst, Thanksgiving is engaging in Avodah Zara by engaging in a ritual of another religion. At the very best, it’s imitating the ways of the non-Jews, which is equally inappropriate.

All of the non-Jewish holidays share one clear item in common: they aren’t about HaShem. Any avodah that is not directed at HaShem is directed at the self. When we, as Jews, participate in them, we are forcing the King of Kings to be subservient to our own selfish desires, the Sitra Achra. That, according to the Alshich HaKadosh, is akin to Avodah Zara. 

Everyone has a religion and an “object” of worship; either it’s HaShem, or something else taking the place of the one and only G-d.