A Tree-Mendous Interfaith Controversy


Israel’s two chief rabbis are reminding Israeli Jews that their New Year is properly observed at the beginning of the Jewish calendar and not Jan. 1.

It is, they wrote, “appropriate to avoid hosting” New Year’s parties.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar also sent letters to hotel managers to remind them that “erecting a Christmas tree in a hotel contravenes halacha [Jewish law] and that therefore it is clear that no one should erect [a tree] in a hotel.”

In addition, Rabbi Elad Dokow, a rabbi of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, went one step further, writing in a Q-and-A column on the religious Srugim website: “No one should enter the student union if it’s not necessary to do so.”

The reason is that there is a Christmas tree in the dining room and Rabbi Dokow said flatly: “There is a halachic problem eating in a room where there is a Christmas tree. …The Christmas tree is a religious symbol — not Christian, but even more problematic — pagan. Halacha clearly states that whenever it is possible to circumvent and not pass through a place where there is any kind of idolatry, this must be done.”

As a result, many students are reportedly eating outside the student union rather than violate halacha.

These rulings are causing consternation among Israeli Christians, prompting the associate director of the Center for Jewish and Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, Israel, Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, to write an op-ed for The Times of Israel. He questioned Rabbi Dokow’s understanding of halacha, calling it “questionable at best, baseless at worst.”

Rabbi Wolicki said it is based on a “most extreme opinion which declares Christianity to be pure idolatry” — a view formulated before the Reformation and which “does not necessarily apply to many denominations of today’s Christians — and may not even apply to today’s Catholics ….”

He explained that Jewish law prohibits benefitting from idolatry, as well as icons and idols that are worshipped or used in worship.

“A Christmas tree is neither worshipped nor does it serve any function in the context of worship,” Rabbi Wolicki explained. “Whether or not a particular practice originated in Pagan sources has no bearing whatsoever on its status as idolatry.”

He added that even an actual idol from ancient times might be enjoyed as long as no one considers it sacred. Thus, to imply Christmas trees are sacred because they “were worshipped long ago in the Ancient Near East is absurd.”

Father Gabriel Naddaf, the leader of the Christian Empowerment Council, which encourages Christian Israelis to integrate into Israeli society, also weighed in on the Christmas tree issue. The Jerusalem Post reported that he wrote a letter to Rabbi Dokow saying Christianity is no longer a threat to Jews and that the Christmas tree is a “symbol of light and hope that we’re supposed to be sending out to the world.”

He acknowledged that “there were awful things against the Jewish people done in the name of Christianity, but this is not the state of Christianity today. And from you [Dokow], it’s expected that you will act toward unity and not divisiveness and segregation.”