Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Yes, Donald, there is a Santa Claus

Topiary trees line the East colonnade at the White House in Washington on Nov. 26, 2018. Christmas has arrived at the White House. First lady Melania Trump unveiled the 2018 White House holiday decor on Monday. She designed the decor, which features a theme of "American Treasures." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Call him the Grinch in Chief.

Or, the Killjoy of the Free World.

In a Christmas Eve call, Trump asked a 7-year-old named Collman Lloyd whether the child still believes in Santa Claus.
“Are you still a believer in Santa? Because at 7, it’s marginal, right?” Trump asked Collman.
We do not know how young Collman reacted to the President’s analysis of the possibility of believing in Santa Claus. I suspect that he might have needed to ask an adult what “marginal” means.
Let’s dig down a little deeper, and ask ourselves: Why does belief in Santa Claus matter?
First: apparently, President Trump was right. Studies show that many children start to abandon their belief in Santa Claus right around the age of seven. According to the New York Times: “That range has been largely consistent for decades; a 1978 study said that 85 percent of 5-year-olds believed, while just 25 percent of 8-year-olds kept the faith.” So, yes: children outgrow the belief in Santa Claus.
Second: this is unfortunate, because “belief” in the unseen and the imaginary is a standard part of religious faith.
Take Judaism, for example. On Shabbat, I devote a certain piece of the worship experience to welcoming unseen/imaginary “friends” into the sanctuary (leaving aside, for the moment, the snark of many atheists who suggest that God is the Ultimate Imaginary Friend).
Who gets the Shabbat invitation?
  • The Shabbat bride.That invitation comes in the form of the well-known Shabbat hymn, Lekha Dodi “Beloved, come”).  This is a sixteenth century text, from Safed, written by Shlomo Alkabetz. There are probably more than a thousand melodies to this song, and at least as many interpretations. The Jewish mystics of old imagined that Shabbat was a beautiful bride (or a queen), and that it was the duty of every Jew to welcome her. We imagine her presence so strongly that we actually rise for her, imagining that she is entering the sanctuary itself.
  • The Shabbat angels. Once we welcome the Shabbat bride, we turn our attention to the Shabbat angels, through the singing of Shalom Aleichem. This is based on the Talmudic legend — that a good angel and a bad angel accompany a person home from synagogue on the eve of Shabbat. If the table is set, and ready for the joy of Shabbat, the good angel says, “May it always be this way,” and the bad angel must say “amen” If the table isn’t set, the bad angel says, “May it always be this way,” and the good angel must say “amen.”
  • And then, at the end of Shabbat, Elijah the prophet. You would need a few hours to totally understand the role of Elijah in Jewish folklore. The short form: whenever Jews encounter a moment that is pregnant with possibility, and ripe for redemption, Elijah has a way of “showing up.” That happens at the end of the Sabbath; towards the end of the Passover Seder, at which a special cup is set aside for him; and at every bris ceremony, where a special chair is set aside for him.

So, this is what I would have wanted President Trump to know.

  1. Kids need invisible friends, heroes, and gift-bringers, whether Santa or the Tooth Fairy. Is that belief “marginal?” Yes — from a rational point of view. Is there anything wrong with it? No. There is everything right with that.
  2. There is something sad about chipping away at those old mythologies. We lose something powerful in the process — when, in the words of my friend, author Thane Rosenbaum, we choose to make “Elijah visible.” For a man who all too often caters to the irrational, there was something uber-rational and unnecessarily cruel in telling a child that Santa Claus might not really exist. Religion needs dreams and visions. So, by the way, do nations.
  3. It’s not just kids. The religious quest is always involved in spirits, unseen presences, invisible people. Check out Jacob Neusner’s excellent book, The Enchantments of Judaism. It’s not just Santa Claus, or the Sabbath Bride, or Elijah. You don’t need to go that far back. Go to Auschwitz, or any concentration camp — and you will experience unseen presences. They are “real.”

Having said that, what if you don’t “really” “believe” in those mythic strangers who come to visit?

Join the club. Most people, at least at a certain age, give those notions a bit of a wink.

But, let’s just say that you were reluctant to abandon those fanciful ideas. Could you re-interpret them?

Totally.

  • Santa Claus winds up being not a good-natured fat man who lives at the North Pole and hangs out with elves and reindeer. Rather, he becomes the imaginary embodiment of the spirit of generosity that allows people to think of others, and to go beyond themselves.
  • The Shabbat Bride and the Shabbat angels wind up being not a beautiful bride and mysterious figures who magically show up in every synagogue on a Friday evening. Rather, they become the imaginary embodiments of the spirit of Shabbat. That spirit of sacred rest, of detachment from having and owning, that attachment to texts, songs, stories, and relationships — haven’t you noticed how imperiled that idea is? It takes work to welcome that idea, and to internalize it. But, it is worth it.
  • Elijah the prophet winds up being not an ancient Judean prophet. Rather, he becomes the spirit of prophetic protest that is necessary in our world, and in faith. He comes at the end of Shabbat to remind us that Shabbat peace is only imaginary, that it needs us to make it a reality. He comes towards the end of the Passover seder to remind us that, for too many, freedom is still elusive. He attends the bris ceremony (and at naming ceremonies for girls as well) to remind us that one of our greatest tasks in child-rearing is to encourage our children to question power and to take care of the vulnerable — which is exactly what Elijah did, both in the Bible and in later legends.

True people of faith not only see what is in front of their eyes. They imagine what is not yet in front of their eyes. Some would say that those are imaginary people; some would say that those are imaginary ideals.

As we prepare to enter 2019, ask yourself: What are you choosing to see? And what do you still need to see?

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.