By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
For most American Jews, Thanksgiving is a chance to gather with family (well… maybe not this year!) and eat turkey and stuffing, like any other American would do.
The big majority of American Jews regard Thanksgiving as more akin to the Fourth of July than Christmas, since Thanksgiving is considered a civil celebration, lacking religious associations and offering an opportunity to fully embrace a widely observed American tradition.
The holiday’s focus on gratitude, and gratitude is an integral part of what it means to be Jewish. There are so many prayers and rituals in Judaism that bring to light the themes of gratitude, as well as of abundance, welcome and compassion, all central topics to Thanksgiving.
Saying “thank you” is a primary Jewish value. When a Jew sits down to eat, he or she says a blessing, which is a way of expressing gratitude.
The rabbis taught that we are to say 100 blessings a day. This teaching reminds us that no matter how difficult life can be, we all have many blessings such as simply being alive, our health, our loved ones, and friends.
Every day of the year we pray during the Amidah, at least three times a day, the Modim blessing, which is basically a thanksgiving prayer. It begins, “We give thanks to You that you are the Lord our God, and God of our ancestors forever and ever, Rock of our lives and Shield of our salvation from generation to generation. We give thanks to you and recount your praises, for our lives that are entrusted in your hand, and for our souls that are in your safekeeping, and for your miracles that are with us every day, and for your wonders and good deeds that are with us at all times: evening, morning, and midday.”
There are many other prayers and texts I could quote here, but I believe the idea is clear already: being thankful and expressing thanksgiving is a main part of being Jewish.
With this idea in mind, it is tempting for many to develop Jewish prayers, rituals and congregational programs for Thanksgiving. Actually, in the 19th century, it was not uncommon for synagogues to hold services on Thanksgiving, as was the custom for a time among American churches. Historian Jonathan Sarna asserts that Thanksgiving is one of four annual holidays — Passover, Hanukkah and the Fourth of July are the others — that together promoted what he called a “cult of synthesis,” the idea that Judaism and Americanism reinforce one another.
In our days, it is still possible to see vestiges of these customs in synagogues and Jewish groups around the country.
Should we try to adopt Thanksgiving as a Jewish holiday? Should we try to dress Thanksgiving with “Jewish clothes,” including appropriate services or special prayers? If you ask me, I believe this is not a good idea. Although Thanksgiving has historical roots in religious traditions, it has long been celebrated as a secular holiday in America by so many people of different faiths and beliefs. It is a day when people can feel thankful, welcoming and compassionate, independently of their religious identity. It is a day when we can share so many good feelings and moral principles as a society, even when we do not share the same beliefs or religion.
I personally would prefer not to change this beautiful social and family celebration by imbuing it with particular religious rituals or customs. It is such a good thing to have a day when you can celebrate thankfulness, family and friendship with your neighbors and your community, independently of your beliefs. This is an extraordinary opportunity to show how people of different origins or faiths can share values and moral principles… and also have a great time together!