Thanksgiving and Other Holidays


For a while now, Dennis Prager has been championing the idea of a 4th of July Seder, paralleling the Passover Seder, as a mean of using ritual to preserve the ideals of the day.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen him explicitly explain how Passover’s position within Judaism is similar to Independence Day’s role in our civil religion.  Just as Passover celebrates the emergence of Israel as a nation, so does the 4th of July.  Just as the Declaration of Independence declares principles without specifying the legal form of the new nation, so is the Exodus only half the story, incomplete without Sinai.  And just as on Passover we recount the story of the Exodus, so in the 4th of July, we remember – often by re-enacting – the events of the Revolution.

It’s also been noted that Passover is the most specifically Jewish of the holidays, stands in contrast to Rosh Hashanah, the most universal holiday on the Jewish calendar.  I would like to suggest that Thanksgiving occupies a similar spot on our secular calendar.

Now, Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday, no doubt about it.  But the theme is of creation of the world, and God as universal monarch, which is different from the concept of gods that had existed before, usually as local gods, whose power didn’t extend beyond the territory of those who worshiped them.  There’s little more universal than that.  Likewise, there’s the mystical notion that the shofar is the sound of our soul, something that all humans share.

Similarly, while Thanksgiving has distinctive American overtones – our material prosperity is a function of both our resources and our resourcefulness (and the freedom to use the latter to make use of the former) – the notion that our blessings ultimately are a result of a partnerships between God and ourselves is something that could be celebrated by anyone fortunate to be free.  It was first celebrated before and exists independent of America as a political entity.

This isn’t to suggest identity between the two sets of holidays, much less between America and Judaism.  Rosh Hashanah is not Thanksgiving; Passover is not the 4th of July.  The ideas actually embodied by the holidays are very different.  And I’ve been highly critical of those (mostly Reform and secular) Jews who replaced religion with politics, trading eternal values for temporary politics.

But their places within their respective systems are very, very similar.