The Promise is a marvellous book, the sequel to Chaim Potok’s best-selling first novel The Chosen. Both deal with the clash of cultures, the Orthodox Jewish world and the straight-laced world of Hasidism in The Chosen where the friendship of two boys is tested by conflicts between their fathers. And the clash between Orthodoxy and modernism in The Promise.

In The Promise, the boys, Reuven and Danny, are grown up, young adults. Reuven is studying to be a rabbi as Danny begins his career as a psychiatrist. New characters are introduced, notably Abraham Gordon, a professor of Jewish philosophy who has written a number of books questioning Jewish orthodoxy and his troubled young son Michael.

Abraham Gordon, despite teaching at a Jewish seminary, is considered a pariah. On the half-title pages of all his books in the library, someone has scribbled, “This is the book of an apostate. Those who fear God are forbidden to read it.”

In a background chapter on Gordon, Potok writes “he never really rebelled against his religion. He simply stopped taking it seriously. Rebellion, said Abraham Gordon, is a conscious act of will directed toward the remolding of ideas or institutions whether by force or by persuasion. Turning one’s back upon ideas or institutions is therefore not an act of rebellion but an act of disengagement. The old is considered dead.

“All through college he considered the old dead. And yet, strangely enough, he found it impossible to abandon the rituals of the tradition. The entire theological structure upon which those rituals were based had disintegrated into a joke: creation in six days, the revelation, miracles, a personal God – all of it. But the rituals – particularly prayer, kashruth, the Shabbat, and the festivals – had intrinsic value for him; and so he continued to observe the rituals while no longer believing in the theology, all the time gambling that he would one day develop a new theology for the old rituals. By the time he was done with graduate school all of it was a joke, including the rituals.”

Gordon is offered a position at Harvard, but decides “he would rather be a professor of Jewish thought than of gentile logic, and enters the Zechariah Frankel Seminary.” Hitler had laid waste to European Jewry and, he tells Reuven, “I gambled that there was enough strength and depth in the tradition for me to be able to make it into more than Sunday-school Bible stories. I had no stomach for fundamentalism. I wanted American Judaism to become something an intelligent person would have to take seriously and be unable to laugh at and want to love. No one laughs at what I write. They may hate it. But they don’t laugh at it.”

The passages resonated with me as I was raised in a fairly religious Christian family. We dutifully went to Sunday school each week, but after attending confirmation classes at around age 12 or 13, I declined to be confirmed. The only one in my class who declined. I was not a full-fledged atheist but I had doubts. And I could not, in good conscience, stand up before the congregation and swear to believe in things I didn’t believe in. To their credit, my parents agreed. Like Abraham Gordon, I did not rebel against religion so much as disengage from it.

It wasn’t until I discovered Ayn Rand in university that my atheism became explicit. I came to understand and respect “that religion is an early form of philosophy”. Rand says “that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points.” But their ultimate problem is they are based on faith, not reason.

So while disagreeing with the supernatural aspect of religion, I find much of value in religious teachings, and much to learn from. Which may be why Potok’s books have such resonance with me. They treat religion as philosophy. The scholars in his books, even the extremely mystical ones, take a learned approach to religion. They debate and discuss fine points. Their religion is as much an intellectual endeavour as a faith-based one. And that has great appeal.

And like Abraham Gordon in The Promise, I find intrinsic value in the rituals. Their value for me is primarily the comfort and joy they give to friends and relatives who are religious. My parents and my wife’s parents were all fairly religious. Christianity gave them great joy and great comfort. I would not want to take that away from anyone.

For myself, there is just one ritual that has great meaning. And that is Christmas. I love Christmas. Our whole family loves Christmas. Christmas means good will, family get togethers and family dinners, colorful lights, and joyful music. I love to hear Christmas music. Even the religious carols are full of joy, hope and optimism.

Again Ayn Rand puts it much better than I can. “The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men – a frame of mind which is not the exclusive property of the Christian religion.

“The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: ‘Merry Christmas’ – not ‘Weep and Repent.’ And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form – by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance….”

And while many decry the “commercialism” of Christmas, Rand finds this one of its best features. “The gift-buying stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure.”

“One would have to be terribly depressed,” she goes on, “to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle (of lights, colors and decorations).


Daughter Sarah putting the topper on the tree – 2008

For our family, Christmas has always been special. And we have traditions, rituals as it were, that we follow year in and year out. Decorating the tree (my daughter always places the tree topper), opening one gift on Christmas eve, everyone gathered around the tree on Christmas morning as I, sporting a Santa hat, hand out the gifts, the hugs and appreciation all around, the big turkey dinner, games and other fun activities, and so on. Every few years my wife’s family gets together – all the siblings and their extended families for a big family Christmas. The last one we had at our house was in 2008, the year of the big snowfall. A white Christmas.

And we love the Christmas movies. Although we have seen them all many times, every year my wife and I watch four in particular in the weeks leading up to Christmas – Christmas Vacation, White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. There are a few others we watch occasionally, but those are our favourites.

Last year we went to Australia to spend Christmas with our daughter and her fiancé, so our son will was home alone for the first Christmas ever. We Skyped with him on Christmas Day, of course, but he was over for an early Christmas with us before we left. We exchanged gifts, had a turkey dinner, and watched two Christmas movies, his favourite The Nightmare Before Christmas and Christmas Vacation.  No matter how many times I’ve seen it, the opening sequence with Clark Griswold challenging the rednecks in the pick up truck and the ill-fated encounter with the logging truck never fails to crack me up.

The essence of Christmas is the greeting we often see on Christmas Cards – Peace on earth and good will towards all men! Even in wartime, combatants usually call a one day truce on Christmas Day. One wonders why, if they can stop fighting for a day at the drop of a hat, why they can’t stop fighting altogether. Peace on earth. This is, as I have written in a previous blog, the very essence of libertarian philosophy. Another reason Christmas is a special time.

Last year was our first Christmas ever in a tropical climate. That was different. We had a suitcase full of gifts including a lot of Canadiana for our ex-pat daughter and family. And Christmas morning we went to the beach!

This year promises to be a white Christmas again. And our daughter, her fiancé, and our brand new baby granddaughter are coming here for Christmas. They arrive on the 19th. We had been in Australia in July and August for her birth and are so excited to see them again.

We’ll have a family Christmas – the five of us and our son – on Christmas Day. And on Boxing Day, my extended family – my three sisters, their children and significant others and their grandchildren will be joining us. One of my brothers may come out from Florida but we’ll Skype with him and my other brother’s family in Toronto in any event.

I hope all of you have as merry a Christmas as we do.

Have a very Merry Christmas!

Notes: The family picture at the top is from 2003. This article has been edited slightly from the original which appeared on my blog last year.