For Jews, Christmas is the birthday party you were not invited to. That's okay - meaning you learn to live with it. But being excluded from the minority cannot help but remind me, at least, of a time in history when things were different. Which introduces the reprise of one of my favorite posts on the subject, as well as my only one. Merry Christmas. And I mean it.
Once upon a time, there were twelve Christians. Well, not “Once upon a time”– this isn’t “The Three Bears” with Christians, it’s real. There was a time when there were twelve Christians. Thirteen, if you count Jesus, who came and went, and then came back. Twelve, thirteen, maybe some girls who hung around, not a large crowd, especially for a religion. Tell your boss you’re in a religion with twelve people in it, and you’re unlikely to get the day off for one of their holidays.
Of course, if you follow religion at all, you know that Christianity, whose followers once numbered in the teens, grew bigger, and now, well, they’re huge. Not that I’m saying that’s surprising, or undeserved. Christianity’s a fine religion, with lots of comforting and inspiring things in it. People seem to like it. And I say more power to them. They’re a big success and that’s great. And I mean that.
Okay, I’ll admit it. There is this tiny tinge of envy. But be fair, can you blame me? Christianity grew out of Judaism. We came first. Though it’s hard to believe today, there was actually a time when there were a lot of Jews and no Christians whatsoever. Not one. There were restricted golf courses and nobody was playing on them. Now they’re this enormous, superstar religion and, well, we’re still around, but really small. And to be honest, it’s tough to take. The sturdy, older brother watching his quietly charismatic sibling zoom past him. You’re standing there wondering what happened?
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being a minority religion. We’re on the map, people have heard of us. When they say Judeo-Christian, we’re Judeo. It’s just that once in a while, you can’t help imagining what it would be like to be the majority, and have the President – a Jewish president, because we’re the majority – come out on the first night of Chanukah and light a huge menorah on the White House lawn.
But maybe I’m being ungrateful. When you think about it, it’s a miracle we’re around at all, considering the more than occasional efforts to wipe us out. Jews log in at a perfectly acceptable thirteen million worldwide, which, though not hundreds of millions like you know who, is better than nothing. Ask the Hittites or the Ishmaelites if they’d like to have thirteen million descendants walking around, instead of nobody. When’s the last time you took in a Canaanite movie, or picked up some Philistine take-out? Everyone’s gone, except us. And I’m certain, way back, betting was very heavy in the other direction.
Still, one can’t help hearkening back wistfully to the era – a short era I’ll admit, but an era nonetheless – when there were more Jews than Christians. In that brief period during the B.C.’s, if you leaned theologically in the direction of one God that nobody can see, Jew was the only game in town. Everyone else was sacrificing virgins and praying to cats.
Then, came the A.D.’s. The A.D.’s meant more than counting the years up rather than counting them down. The A.D.’s brought Judaism a new baby brother, a brother who would one day leave them, at least religious popularity-wise, in the dust.
Change was in the air. Trouble in the Holy Land, the Romans pushing everybody around. In times like these, Jewish tradition calls for a messiah to show up and straighten things out. And, to be sure, there was no lack of applicants for the job. Messiah candidates, usually badly dressed, with wild eyes and crazy hair, would stand on some high place where everybody could see them, and proclaim, “I’m him!” or, more loftily, “I’m Him!” (Of course, the grammatically correct version is “I’m He”, but people rarely warm to a messiah who’s smarter than they are.)
They were all fakes, every one of them. They’d draw some early heat, earning a free meal or a place to stay, possibly a complimentary pair of sandals, but sooner or later, reality did them in. They’d prophesy things and they wouldn’t come to pass. Or some sick person would cry, “Heal me!” and they’d just look at them. Game over. After that, they were just irritating pests, who eventually had to go out and find a job.
But then, someone came along who, to this day, is viewed as the genuine article. We’re told of an ability to heal with a touch, walk on water, and make a small amount of food go a really long way. Jewish onlookers, desperate for a messiah, couldn’t help but take notice. The right guy at the right time.
He got twelve followers. Not too impressive considering the things he was pulling off, but Jews, even desperate ones, are a highly skeptical people. When you tell Jews there’s this guy out there doing miracles, the standard response is, “Go away, I’m busy.” Or, if they’re funny, “Let him try selling flannel in the desert. Now that would be a miracle.”
Of course, you can’t blame early Jews for not viewing with awe a religion that had twelve people in it. For a religion, twelve is a precariously puny number. Romans sweep through in a bad mood – goodbye, Christians. A plague wipes them out in twenty minutes. Followers get jobs out of town, they start families and can’t make the meetings, another messiah shows up giving away camels, these guys were hanging by a thread. Borrowing a desert metaphor, when you’re in a twelve-man religion, your membership card’s written in sand.
A larger membership was urgently needed. It was grow or go. And growing wouldn’t be easy. The problem? To convince Jews, stubborn people to begin with, to abandon a religion of thousands of years, and throw in with twelve zealots proclaiming that theirs is the one true way. Oh, and one more thing. If the Romans caught you being one, they nailed you to a cross.
I imagine – and since I wasn’t there, imagination’s all I can go on – that there had to have been some sort of committee. A marketing team, devising strategies for attracting Jews to the fledgling faith. Maybe later, they’d present their suggestions to the whole congregation, but to hammer out the basics, I see a smaller contingent. Maybe two people, say, Matthew (formerly Murray) and Simon (formerly Sol).
If this meeting had been recorded, we’d know what it was that saved Christianity from extinction, and paved the way to the great success it enjoys today. Since it wasn’t recorded, I’ll have to make it up. We open on an early A.D. gavel pounding on a table, or just a hand hitting an indoor rock.
“I call this meeting to order.”
“Murray, it’s just you and…”
“Excuse me. It’s Matthew.”
“When I was Jewish, I was Murray. Now I’m Matthew. With two ‘t’s’”.
“Sorry. Matthew. What I was saying is it’s just you and me. There’s no need for protocol.”
“You’re right, Sol.”
“Okay. Now, what we’re here to do is to come up with appealing ideas to win converts and swell our ranks. Because if our ranks don’t swell…”
“…we’re headed for oblivion.”
“That’s a depressing way to put it.”
“But it’s true, isn’t it?”
“It might be. But I’d prefer a sunnier attitude.
“May I be candid? I never wanted to be on this committee. My strength is picnics and outings. I don’t even know where to start.”
”It’s a tough assignment, no question. Why don’t we start by looking at the things that make us different.”
“We’re certainly qualified to do that. We used to be Jews, and now, we’re this. By the way, what is this?
“What is what?”
“What we are. You know, like our name. Jews are Jews. Who are we?”
“There’s another committee working on that.”
“Good. ‘Cause it’s embarrassing when someone asks, ‘What do you call yourselves?’ and I say ‘I don’t know.’ It shows a lack of imagination. Maybe we should have a temporary name. Like we wear these fish emblems, maybe we should call ourselves Fishtians.”
“I think we’re wandering here.”
“Sorry. What’s our job again?”
“To convert the Jews.”
“And to do that, we need to consider what is it that makes us different?”
“I know a difference.”
“Their Sabbath is on a Saturday, and ours is on Sunday.”
“I don’t think you’re getting the concept.”
“You wanted different. I gave you different.”
“Think about it. Do you really think the opportunity to pray on Sunday instead of Saturday will send Jews flocking to our midst?”
“Oh, I see. It’s not just different. It’s different and better.”
“Exactly. Maybe we should draw from experience. What was it about us that made you want to switch?”
“That’s easy. Pork.”
“You switched for pork?”
“Never underestimate the power of forbidden foods. A lot of Jews eat it already. They chew peppermint leaves, so you won’t smell it on their breath.”
“I may be wrong, but I don’t see a huge cross-over from pork.”
“How about ‘Sunday’ and pork?”
“Will you stop with ‘Sunday?’ ’Sunday’s’ nothing. I mean, when it comes to days of rest, Saturday’s the better choice. It’s a day sooner.”
“I always thought it was too soon. I wasn’t tired yet.”
“Look, we’re talking about frills.”
“Frills are important.”
“We’re bigger than frills. We’ve got a great religion. Something so meaningful, people risk death to be part of it.”
“I wouldn’t bring that up at the recruitment sessions.”
“But that says something. It says it’s worth it. Now, think. Go to the essence. What is it about us you really like?”
“I like Jesus.”
“Lots of people are nice.”
“Not as nice as Jesus.”
“But isn’t there something more than his niceness?”
“Well, he says if you believe in him you won’t die. Which, to be honest, I find a little confusing.”
“I thought if you believe in him, you do die.”
“Not always. And even if you do…wait a minute. I think you’ve hit on something.”
“Forget the whole thing?”
“You just said it. Dying isn’t bad for us, because we’ve got…”
“You know this. We’ve got…”
“I have no idea.”
“Think. Something we’ve got that they don’t. And that thing is…?”
“Look, just tell me, okay?”
“Heaven! We’ve got Heaven!”
“Jews have heaven.”
“Very hazy. I asked my Dad about it. He was barely coherent.”
“Any he’s a rabbi. Wait, I get it. If we’ve got Heaven, and they don’t…”
“…we don’t really die....”
“…and they do! That’s perfect! Heaven. Heaven’s great!”
“Better than lying in the ground.”
“You know, when you think about it, our whole religion’s more people-friendly. With them, it’s ‘The wrath of the Lord…’, and smiting, and ‘…Cast a pestilence upon the land.’ We’re not like that.”
“I was kind of sensing we weren’t. But I was wondering if it wasn’t just, you know, like a come-on, and the wrath came later.”
“I don’t think so. Our religion is wrath-free.”
“Wait. Didn’t Jesus yell at some moneychangers…?”
“Okay, so we’re not wrath-free. But we’re definitely reduced-wrath.”
“Then, that’s it. That’s what we sell. A reduced-wrath religion, Heaven at the end, and pork – and Sunday, for those who prefer it – as a bonus.”
“I like it.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“It’s very good. But we need one more thing. A deal clincher.”
“Simon, I think we’re there.”