Paganism, Shmaganism

I have been a believer in God as far back as I can remember. I began to believe Yeshua was the Messiah in 1973. When I first began to believe in him, I was neutral to Christian holidays because they were not what I grew up with. They seemed foreign, but fun, yet were not mine. They didn’t really bother me, and to the extent that they surrounded me during the holiday seasons, I enjoyed them.

When I was younger, I participated in Halloween. My mom made sure we had costumes just like the other kids did, and we canvassed the neighborhood collecting candy, just like the other kids did. The rabbi who taught my Hebrew school class said we shouldn’t celebrate Halloween because it was a Christian holiday. No one in our class believed it. There was nothing Christian about it. It was just a candy gathering holiday. Everyone in class went trick or treating and we weren’t worshiping the Christian god, we were in it for the candy.

Later when I became a follower of Yeshua, I had people coming out of the woodwork to tell me that I shouldn’t celebrate Halloween because it was “the devil’s holiday,” and it came from pagan origins. I had other people who came out of paganism who told stories of devil worship associated with Halloween. I listened to them as well as I listened to my teacher. Nobody I knew was worshiping the devil. Everyone was in it for the candy, and the fun of dressing up. I never worshiped the devil a day in my life, and wasn’t about to buy into people’s superstitious notions. Besides, if I wanted superstitions, my mom had plenty and those were at least Jewish superstitions. She still puts a red ribbon on every family picture to ward off the evil eye, and it doesn’t hurt to put one in the car either.

When I led my congregation in Phoenix thirty years ago, a woman who attended our services told me she loved our congregation, but commented on what a shame it was that the Jewish people adopted the “star of a Babylonian goddess” as our symbol. I tried to explain to her that the Star of David was a symbol of the Jewish people and that no Jewish people were worshiping a Babylonian goddess, but she bought that like I bought the idea that Halloween was pagan. Fortunately, she couldn’t deal with it and left.

The number one targets in the paganism paranoia is of course, Christmas and possibly Easter. People point out that Yeshua was probably not born on December 25th. They say that Constantine took Saturnalia, a pagan solstice holiday and adapted it. They attack the Christmas tree, as bringing in a pagan Asherah pole; and are quick to point out that the giving of gifts have nothing to do with the Biblical story. My response: I don’t care if Yeshua wasn’t born on December 25th. People who celebrate Christmas are not in it for Saturnalia or for Asherah poles. They are in it for the presents, and for the time of year where people wish each other well, and for beautiful music and decorations, and family and food. They are not worshiping the devil, and not becoming pagan.

If Christmas is bad, Easter is worse. The anti-paganists have a field day with Easter. They start in by saying the name Easter comes from Ishtar, a Babylonian fertility goddess. They point to the Easter bunny, and Easter Eggs as pagan symbols of fertility. I never really got into Easter, probably because the idea of Easter Ham turned me off. I did like the peeps and chocolate bunnies though.

I have to admit: I don’t care about the pagan origins of anything. The reason I don’t care, is that the Scriptures teach that God looks upon our hearts, or in other words, he looks at our heart intentions. If your intent is not to worship the devil, then you aren’t. If your intent is to lift up remembrance of God in all you do, then all you do becomes holy.

I was so pleased when First Fruits Of Zion put out a terrific CD set on Paganism that discusses the issue with sanity and intelligence instead of paranoid fears that see the devil in everything.

In Kohelet, (Ecclesiastes) it says that the gift of God is the ability to enjoy the good things the Lord has given us. Many people have good things but can’t find it in themselves to enjoy them. I seek to look at the good and enjoy the blessings of God.


15 thoughts on “Paganism, Shmaganism

  1. “I have to admit: I don’t care about the pagan origins of anything. The reason I don’t care, is that the Scriptures teach that God looks upon our hearts, or in other words, he looks at our heart intentions.”

    Exactly! Christians don’t worship pagan deities and just about everything in this world can be traced to “pagans” if one really tries since even Avraham Avinu himself was born into an idol worshiping family.

  2. Thanks for your post. It’s great to see that some people don’t think that us Christians are pagan worshippers. Even though I am not a Messianic I enjoy your blog post very much.

  3. For many years I felt that to participate in any of these events could be seen by G-d as giving my blessing to the event and to its pagan origins.

    I was wrong.

  4. Thanks for your post.

    My concern is from a different direction. For people to celebrate Easter and Christmas with the correct intent I whole-heartedly agree. My concern is what is says to our people (Traditional Jews). Your excellent article on Kosher Rabbi’s reinforces my concern.

    If we in Messianic Judaism celebrate these Holidays, are we sending the message we really are a Church playing Jewish?

    Our Congregational stance (and also the UCMJS) is “we do not celebrate Christmas or Easter”; but we temper it with noting what people choose to do in their own home is their business (we also don’t inspect refrigerators and dishes).

    Please weigh in your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks for your response. If you notice, I did not say people should celebrate Christmas or Easter. I don’t, unless you consider eating a chocolate bunny a celebration, which falls short of celebration in my view. As I said in the beginning of the post, they are not my holidays so I don’t celebrate them, yet I do enjoy the festivities.

      I completely agree with your congregational stance. Every congregation needs to have a formal position to communicate the deeply held values of the community; yet what people do in their own homes is their own business. This is the same in the wider Jewish world. Synagogues formally espouse a Kosher dietary lifestyle, yet who are the best customers in Chinese restaurants? On Rosh HaShanna a popular Chinese restaurant where I grew up would put up a sign wishing a Happy New Year to our Jewish Friends!

      The Orthodox synagogue I grew up in, locked the parking lot shut on Shabbat, as people were “officially” not allowed to drive on Shabbos. Most people parked two blocks away and walked from their parked cars. It wasn’t so much hypocrisy as it was a matter of respecting the formal rules, yet adapting their personal level of observance to not offend others. Don’t ask, Don’t tell didn’t start with the Army.

  5. What has the Uniform Code of Military Justice got to do with all this?

    Traditional Christmas music is some of the most beautiful ever written. Am I conveying a bad image of MJ if I enjoy Christmas music? How about if I only play it in the summer? Does a new suit of summer clothes and a nice bouquet for my wife in the spring convey a bad image?

    I think what is going on here is that we are letting the world tell us how we are to live our lives, when we ought to be looking to G-d’s word in Torah for that. An excellent example is to be found in contemporary charismatic Christian history. Back in the 1980s, they used to show the rainbow (straight from Torah) as a sign of Gpd’s grace toward them, and as a symbol of their joy about it. The homosexual community took over the rainbow, and now anyone showing the rainbow is suspect of being a homosexual. I am often gay, but I am NOT a homosexual.

    I think chocolate is delicious, whether in the shape of a rabbit, or gelt.

    Rabbi, you are SO right. Let’s just enjoy that which can be enjoyed and let the world judge what it will.

    • Shalom,

      UCMJS – Union of Conservative Messianic Jewish Synagogues. I think Dr. Schiffman’s point is valid, personal vs corporate practice.

      I know in our traditional community we would be considered a Church if we kept Church Holidays, and rightfully so. What is done in a persons home is their business.

      We need to choose, either be a Synagogue and act like it, or give up the label.

      Toda – B”H

  6. Dr. Schiffman,

    My struggle in believing you is the phrase, “the Scriptures teach that God looks upon our hearts, or in other words, he looks at our heart intentions” can be used to justify just about anything. Indeed, the Christian world has done exactly this.

    Church-approved homosexual relationships and marriages? The heart of these people is love towards one another — they aren’t the loveless, godless wretches Paul describes in Romans 1, instead, they’re a same-sex couple in love! God looks at the heart, right?

    Another example might be the golden calf. The Israelites said the calf was God who led them out of Egypt. They believed they were worshiping God. That didn’t make it right.

    Another example is the cohen who offered to God strange fire in the Tabernacle. Their intent was to honor God with an offering, and yet, God struck them down.

    “I meant well” isn’t a good decider of the ethics of something. I’m sure lots of people mean well when they wish Israel to give land to the Palestinians, for example, but that doesn’t make it right.

    We both agree Christians aren’t pagans for celebrating Easter, and Jews aren’t pagan for having shields of David. But at some point, intentions don’t cut it, and you can do wrong despite having good intentions in your heart. Do you agree?

  7. Judah,

    You are right that the phrase has been used to justify just about anything, but that doesn’t mean the problem is with the phrase, but with it’s misapplication.

    The examples you gave all had to do with behaviors which scripture explicitly condemns. Same sex marriage, the golden calf, strange fire being offered on the altar, and giving land to Arabs are all things directly forbidden by scripture and therefore fall into a different category than Christian holidays which are not forbidden by scripture. In fact, the case against those holidays is made almost wholly by inference from spurious verses of scripture loosely strung together. That is hardly the same thing as something directly condemned by scripture.

    The point is, it is not only a question of intention, but it has to be recognized that God does judge the intent of the heart when we are following the guidelines of scripture. I am not saying that it is OK for me to eat pork as long as my heart is right. If I am eating pork, my heart is not right. I am saying that every practice does not come down to origins. If origins were all we had to go by, we would never do anything. If Scripture explicitly condemns something, we must go with the explicit condemnation, and not with heart intent. If scripture does not directly address an issue, then heart intent becomes a more important part of the equation. Paul also said in Romans 14:5-6, “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.”

    Paul’s point is that we need to stop judging one another and take care of our own actions. He says “let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.” To me, that means if someone thinks Christmas, Easter, and Halloween are pagan, then they should abstain, by all means. It also means, they shouldn’t go condemning everyone who does celebrate those holidays for being in paganism, when it just ain’t so.

  8. In romans !4:5-6 when speaking of keeping this day or another day does this apply to the Shabbat if Christians claim to be grafted into G-d’s chosen people and claim that Kefa changed the Shabbat from THE Shabbat to first day worship ?
    scripture in context speaks of the command to Keep the sabbath and the punishment for not doing so is Death ( i like to believe meaning separation from G-d but others say otherwise ) and that the shabbat applies to the Israelites and as well to servants and all sojourning with the community . I get the line” G-d does not care about shabbat ” and we can worship any day as long as we worship . yet this is to be a sign unto all generations .. Am i stupid for asking people to consider the Shabbat as the shabbat and that although it is ok ney commended that people at all times the Shabbat is a must if you claim to be part of G-d’s chosen people Jew , or Non Jewish Believer sojourning with us?
    As to the paganness of symbols I tend to look on the side of caution i must insist that the traditions of the church in the 18th century with the nekkid rabbi races gave me numerous really bad images seeing myself and many of our friends running down the street to a ray Stevens tune truely bad visuals which may go on for several generations.
    I look at the pagan issue more like how i look at most things
    it is ok to be Jewish AND athiest,agnostic , b’hai, hindu, wiccan, spiritualist, bhuddist, and many others and practice the teachings of these religions assume their customs mingled with our own and still be “good Jews”
    Yet follow yeshua and be no longer Jewish?
    If the false gods were like unto HaShem would not the action of performing rituals in their own rite be construed worship by that god. this year i revised my feelings about many christmas traditions
    we are told t not take on the traditions of the nations , etc . i ask my congregation to treat Christmas as a secular holiday with good music and a belated birthday party and acts of kindness . and in thati challenge these people to raise the bar and give in a Messiah like manner rather than from the dregs of our unwanted and truely Bring the spirit of Yeshua into the holiday . As a classically trained musician much of my favorite music is biblically based and from the christian holidays and many of the composers were Jews … how can i turn from caroling , a mug of mulled wine and maybe some Yorkshire pudding or figgy pudding , or wassail . ok i have shone my methodist upbringing . I think though , that we need to simply respect the hearts of those in the rest of the body of messiah because wrong or right in their actions their hearts are aimed at serving HaShem

    • Clay.. Romans 14:5-6 says literally, “one man… Another man…” It doesn’t say Jews or gentiles. I therefore interpret it as speaking to humans. Some humans value certain days over others, while other humans view all days the same. The instruction is clear… God accepts them both, and we should not judge humans who hold a different practice than we do.

  9. Short Addendum
    As to our celebration of the holidays congregationally we do not do anything for christmas , good friday( what is that all about) ,maundy thursday , ash wednesday ,easter etc. i often visit my Christian friends as a guest vocal soloist or conductor for their combined choir /Orchestral festivities givint the choir master a break .B”H

    well must run CDO is not running busses tomorrow cause the driver is ill and we pick up most of our people . so Elder Mike asked we not have our Torah service this week since we will have no minion

    Good Shabbas

  10. Union of Conservative Messianic Jewish Synagogues? Never heard of it, and I’ve been in Messianic Judaism for quite a while. Conservative Messianic sounds like an interesting idea, but I’ve never heard of such a thing. Is it free-standing, or part of UMJC or MJAA? Who are the leadership?

    When a non-Messianic Jew looks at us, he does so from the outside, by watching our lives as individuals. He does not come inside and look at our synagogue. That suggests to me, that we as individuals ought to watch how we conduct ourselves in public. For example, I said earlier that I love Christmas music, but be assured I keep my enjoying acticities inside my house, and when there aren’t any non-Messianic Jews around.

    My point is that, while I concur 100% with Rabbi Dr. Schiffman’s approach to Christian holidays, I don’t flaunt it in front of those we pray will accept us as a legitimate sect of Judaism.

    • We are tiny and while we support most of the UMJC’s positions (and have even talked about joining in the past), we have yet to do so. Official positions on conversion, Torah keeping for non-Jews, role of Shulkhan Aruch in everyday halaha are some of the ares we are watching with great interest.

      Rabbi’s like the good Dr. leave me optimistic that one day we may fit in there. The MBC is also a major step forward.

      While many of us are individual members of the MJAA, we cannot in good conscious affiliate with the IAMCS due to their positions on key issues. I remember the conversation with some of the leadership. When I was asked if I was filled with the Spirit, I knew it was not for us.

      Messianic Judaism is at a crossroads in my mind. I expect a decisive split to occur with those groups desiring to be part of Judaism banding together. Based on conversations with Rabbi’s in Israel and others, I suspect this move would be applauded quietly by some and would be a solid move to be taken not only as fellow Jews but also as a step in legitimacy.

      That will leave other challenges, but I am optimistic the discussion will then be seen as an “in the family” argument.


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