The days are growing shorter, the air is getting colder, and suddenly Thanksgiving is upon us. Halakhic authorities have debated whether it is appropriate for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving, raising the concern that celebrating this holiday may be in violation of the Biblical verse of “u’v’chukoteichem lo tailaichu,” to not imitate Gentile customs. The Rema rules (Yoreh Dei’ah 178:1) that "u’v’chukoteichem..." refers to Gentile practices that are connected to an idolatrous or promiscuous reason, or even those that are practiced for no apparent reason at all. The Rema explains that we may not engage in any of them, because we must avoid even the suspicion that there is an underlying idolatrous or promiscuous practice that we are imitating. However, the Rema makes a notable exception. That is, we may engage in a Gentile practice for which there is a clear non-idolatrous and non-promiscuous reason. The example given for this type of secular practice is the custom of doctors to wear specially identifying clothing. This is not a Jewish practice and is the way of secular physicians, and yet the clear intent of this practice is neither idolatrous nor promiscuous.
How then do we apply this principle of the Rema's ruling to celebrating Thanksgiving? Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Rosh Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, ruled that celebrating this Gentile holiday as an annual occurrence based on the Christian calendar is closely associated with idol worship and is thus prohibited. Rav Moshe Feinstein, having written a number of responsa on this topic, wrote one clarifying statement of his position in 1981. In those remarks, it appears that Rav Feinstein was not comfortable with the holiday but was not absolutely opposed to it. He seemed to conclude that the more ritualistic the holiday becomes, the more problematic it is. On the other hand, Rav Soloveitchik is believed to have been completely comfortable with the American practice of Thanksgiving. He is quoted by Rav Herschel Schacter in Nefesh Harav as having ruled that one may eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and I have even been told that he had Thanksgiving dinner with his children. Presumably, he believed that Thanksgiving is not a Christian holiday. Even though it may have started as some sort of Puritan holiday – in fact, some historians say that America’s first Thanksgiving was likely inspired by the holiday of Sukkot – once President Lincoln nationalized this holiday, it became an American secular holiday.
If we follow Rav Soloveitchik’s position that one may celebrate Thanksgiving in some fashion, there is still the question: Is this practice merely permitted or should it be encouraged? I believe that a nuanced response is warranted here. There are certain things in the Torah that are forbidden and others that are obligatory. As a guiding principle, we must avoid those things that are forbidden even if we think they are good for us, and we must do those things that are obligatory even if we think they are bad for us. When a practice is black and white, forbidden or obligatory, we are not to insert our own ideas and justifications into the equation. However, what are we to do with the many practices and customs that are neither forbidden nor obligatory? How are we to make these choices, when we find ourselves in shades of grey? In these cases, I believe it is appropriate for each of us to consider whether such practices ultimately draw us nearer or farther from our governing goals. In other words, whether we partake in these customs must be dependent on whether or not they are good for us. On Thanksgiving, if we utilize this day to prompt ourselves to be grateful, to be thankful, to express hakarat hatov to Hashem or to our parents or to the country where we live, then I think it’s good thing.
In this light, I am so proud of what our community plans to do on Thanksgiving this year. In the spirit of gratitude, Young Israel of Oceanside members will be gathering to express our community's gratitude to the local volunteer Oceanside fire department for all that they do to keep us safe. Young Israel of Oceanside parents, grandparents, and children have prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for these local volunteers and will be delivering it to their firehouse on Thanksgiving day.
May we all seek out each opportunity that is afforded to us to express wonderful midot like gratitude, for our betterment and for the betterment of those around us. Happy Thanksgiving!