Jews Making Oaths to Christ

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One way to be inconsistent is to hold two views that are inconsistent with each other. Another is to do something that, whether you realize it or not, is inconsistent with your official view. I'm regularly complaining that people confuse these two things. Only the latter can ever accurately be called hypocrisy, and only then if it's done regularly with the full knowledge of the person doing it. A slip here or there is not hypocrisy. It's just humanity.

But pragmatic inconsistencies are still worth pointing out, because people who engage in them ought to change their view or seek to change their behavior. Arnold Zwicky at Language Log has an example that seems to me to be exactly the kind of inadvertent pragmatic inconsistency that I wouldn't call hypocrisy but do think ought to lead to some revision of belief or practice. Jennifer Gilmore reports on the behavior of her Jewish parents:

My father, who is 100 percent Jewish, has always been obsessed with Christmas. He grew up in Minneapolis, in an unobservant household, and he considers it part of his childhood. "I remember the lights, the trees," he used to say to my little sister and me. "It was magical." He decorates the mantel with Christmas cards and tapes mistletoe to the doorways, and one year he even tried to get my mother, also Jewish, with a much more observant upbringing, to allow an evergreen wreath on our front door. ''I can't live with that,'' she said. "I just can't. Nothing on the outside of this house. We're Jews, for Christ's sake."

Now there's a separate issue of the inconsistency of allowing it on the inside but not the outside. That seems to me to be a deliberate allowance of the behavior in private but not in public, which is outright hypocrisy of a very crude sort. It's ok for us to do this, as long as no one knows about it. If it's ok for you to do, then you should be able to do it without embarrassment, and if it's not then you shouldn't be doing it anywhere.

But even aside from that, I think there's a much more interesting kind of inconsistency going on here. There seems to be a tremendous resistance to being seen as doing anything related to Christmas. The reason is because they're Jewish. This is a line that I've heard often enough from Jewish friends, despite the fact that Christmas trees are a non-religious symbol of a secularized holiday. Some Christians might choose to endow Christmas trees with some religious meaning, but as most Americans practice Christmas there is no symbol to the tree that has anything particular to do with Christianity.

Zwicky makes an interesting argument. He notices Gilmore's father's oath, which for a Christian would be blasphemous (indeed, a violation of the third commandment, or more accurately "third word", but no one knows it by that). But the oath has no sacred meaning to pervert for a Jew who doesn't recognize Jesus as Messiah, never mind as God. Zwicky's opening to the post explains how this can happen:

It's a commonplace that taboo vocabulary arises from reference to subjects that are culturally taboo, but then becomes conventionalized. Eventually, people use the words without a thought to their origins or literal meanings; they're just words.

That's exactly what such expressions have become for most people who use them, and incidentally it's for that reason that it does count as a violation of the third commandment (assuming Christ's divinity, anyway, which I and many readers of this blog do hold to).

But what's funny about this is that these are two examples of the same general phenomenon, and Gilmore's father seems to have taken them in different directions. With the Christmas decorations that have no significance for most people religiously, he can't be seen having anything to do with them, because they are Christian somehow (even though they have ceased to be so for virtually everyone, including him as evidences by his private use of them). Meanwhile, he's happy to use the name 'Christ' in a curse/oath context, presumably for the very reason that for him and for many Americans it has ceased to have any reference to the actual person it would refer to in other contexts. To be consistent with his practice on Christmas decorations, he should be doing this in private but not allowing anyone else to know about it. If so, then he'd be a hypocrite on two counts rather than one. But as it is he's just downright inconsistent in his treatment of two practices of broadly Christian origin but basically secular in practice.

The only rational basis I can think of for allowing the profanity but not the decorations is because it should offend Christians, but that doesn't paint Mr. Gilmore in a good light either. Is it good to seek to offend people just for the sake of doing so? So I'm left thinking that there can be no rational basis for allowing one while opposing the other.

3 Comments

I don't know, Jeremy. I think there might be room for a consistent view here. It's not inconsistent to treat X one way and Y another, even if both X and Y share some feature F.

You think in this case there's an inconsistency, because that apparent principle about Christmas trees is an instance of a general principle about something that includes the invocation of 'Christ'. I can see why you might think this -- both are derivative from Christian practices. (Well, maybe only sort of; we needn't go into the cultural history of the Christmas tree.) But we needn't posit such a course-grained principle. In fact, we have reason not to -- the behavior makes it clear that not everything that derives from Christian beliefs and practices are being treated in the same way. The charitable attribution, then, is a principle distinguishing the two.

There are a number of possible distinguishing features. Maybe the idea is to avoid practices that would make reasonable people think that they're not Jewish; if I see Christmas decorations, that raises my credence that the family isn't a Jewish one, since as a sociological fact, most Jews don't celebrate Christmas. Not so for saying "for Christ's sake".

Or maybe it has to do particularly with Christmas. Maybe Christmas is a salient reminder of the minority status of Jews, and it makes the person in question feel marginalized. Christmas is a time when it's abnormal not to be into the Christian thing, and this might upset him. He might then rationally shun Christmas while being comfortable with other Christian-derivative practices.

There are other possibilities, too. We'd have to see just what he thinks is ok and what he thinks isn't. But I think it's pretty quick to judge him as inconsistent by attributing such a course principle.

(I agree that there is an amusing sort of irony in his invocation of such profanity; I just don't think it need amount to inconsistency.)

I just re-read the story and realized that I was confusing the statements of the mother and the father. Consequently, some of the pronouns in my comment are wrong.

I don't think the first interpretation is likely, because that removes the hypocrisy that this woman was attributing to her father. He'd have a principled reason for allowing it to be done but not to be seen. Of course, maybe she's being uncharitable to him too.

I don't think the second is legitimate, though it may have been what he was thinking. But that's because I really object to the line of reasoning. I don't think Christmas can reasonably be seen as tied to Christianity in the way it's been practiced for many decades. But this would be consistent if that's what it came from. It would just be consistent at the price of being ungrounded.

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