As many of you are likely aware, the celebration of Thanksgiving in the Orthodox Jewish community is far from a given. During the twentieth century, major poskim (decisors of Jewish law) issued different rulings regarding the celebration of Thanksgiving. Three basic views were promulgated in regard to this matter:
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik permitted and proudly celebrated Thanksgiving himself, according to those close with him. Members of his class at Yeshiva University heard him talk of going home to Boston for a Thanksgiving meal. Others, such as Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner categorically forbid any celebration of Thanksgiving, ruling that it was either an idolatrous holiday or, at the very best, something akin to it. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein took something of an intermediate position, ruling that it was a secular holiday, and therefore not idolatrous. Nevertheless, he stated that he felt it was irrational and foolish to celebrate the holiday, and that there would be a tangential problem of adding to the commandments by celebrating on a particular day in a particular way each year.
The intention of my post today is not to discuss the merits of these and other legal arguments about the validity of Thanksgiving in Jewish law, but rather to briefly discuss some of the implicit messages and implications inherent in these views.
1) By claiming that Thanksgiving is, in essence, silly, we place ourselves "above" the need for a day of gratitude to our Creator. Some have claimed that Jews are thankful every day, and that no special day of thanks is needed. True, we should always be thankful. I don't see why a believing Jew would feel that way any more than anyone else, though. Further, Judaism is replete with the notion that we ought to set aside specific times of the year to focus on that which we ought to focus on every day of the year. Passover is a once a year focus on the exodus and the responsibility resulting from that freedom, a topic we are commanded to mention and remember each day of the year. Tisha B'av is a once a year focus on the destruction and exile that has haunted our people, something we also reflect on each day of the year in our liturgy. It's self-evident that we humans need to set aside specific times to focus on things we'd like to focus on throughout the year. These special appointed times serve as a focus and motivation, keeping us on track, affording us the time off to do what we say we ought to be doing, and serve as an important cultural statement of shared values.
As Jews, giving thanks to our brethren, country, and ultimately to God is one of the major tenets our religion stands for. As an example, the entire system of blessings before and after food is designed to increase our awareness of and gratitude towards God in our everyday enjoyment and survival. Further, the entire notion of the Sabbath, one of the hallmark features of Jewish life, is predicated on the notion that we should set aside time once a week to thank God for his blessings in our week. This is clearly the philosophical outlook behind the prohibition of melachot (39 specific forms of labor), and the popular notion that Shabbat is the mekor haberacha, the source of all blessing in our lives. Refraining from our own creative activity allows us to acknowledge the "behind-the-scenes" God who makes it all happen. Being a blessed nation (i.e. having a clear relationship to God) is dependent first and foremost on acknowledgment and gratitude.
2) The Rabbinic decisors who accepted Thanksgiving did so because they considered it primarily a secular holiday. Though Washington's original proclamation was steeped in the soaring language of thanks to the Divine, this doesn't accurately reflect the reality, they would claim. Thanksgiving, at its essence, is a holiday consisting of a turkey dinner with family, football, Black Friday, etc. Those Rabbis who rejected Thanksgiving emphasized its Christian origin.
Personally, I feel that there is another approach inherently espoused by many, perhaps even a silent majority. While Thanksgiving certainly has its fill of cultural hallmarks and practices, so do all good secular and religious holidays, meaningful or not. At its core, though, Thanksgiving is an important day about the very thanks it's named for, and it's a good and positive thing, Jewishly and otherwise. That the idea of thanking God was commemorated in this way by Christians who happen to worship in a different way to a different deity is immaterial. After all, Washington and many of the founders were deists as much as they were truly believing Christians. More importantly, we feel a kindred commonality with many Christians and others of faith. We believe in a higher Source, and they believe similarly. This can be said not just of Christianity, but many faith systems. That our theologies are different, even vastly so, remains important but less so than it once did. Fundamentally, we relate to and even share the religious sensibility that motivated a day of thanksgiving to God, regardless of particular religious beliefs.
All that we have is ultimately due to the benevolence and blessings of God. More than the ideas which divide us, this powerful idea motivated Thanksgiving, and is one that many of us (myself included) proudly share. As a Jew, I am grateful that we live in a country which celebrates this fact, and would urge us to celebrate thanksgiving with this focus in mind, rather than focusing on our differences. Broadly, we are commanded to remain a people separate and apart in order to preserve our identity as a group that recognizes and promotes God in the world. When we emphasize our particularity to such an extent that we can't even take part in a celebration of thanksgiving to the Creator, we fail to actualize our divinely ordained mission, and render our unique identity pointless.