It is a strange feeling, to walk through the empty campus of Harvard today - and, all the more so, through the empty spaces of Rosovsky Hall, the Jewish Center of our University, usually so bustling with life, with laughter, prayer, argument, studying, Jewish students and their friends of all faiths and origins sharing celebration and companionship together.
The quiet in these spaces of learning eerily echoes the custom of Nittel Nacht, a name given to Christmas Eve by medieval Talmudists in German-speaking lands, and for centuries in Europe a time when Jews uncharacteristically refrained from Torah-learning. The study-halls were closed, and families stayed at home, passing the time in idle diversions - games of chance, for example. (Some suggest that Nittel may be the source of Chanukah's dreidel.)
The deprecating ideas that emerged around Nittel - such as: that the spirit of Jesus would be forced to wander through the world on that night to witness the absence of Torah and the emptiness of the study-halls, and realize the desolation wrought in his name - very clearly arose in response to Jews being banned from the public squares of many cities on Catholic holy days, and being subject to fatal ambushes and raids at such times in many more.
As late as 1939, the Hasidic leader, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piaseczno, near Warsaw, soon to be murdered in the Holocaust, echoed the idea of Nittel in a talk he gave on this Sabbath in our cycle of Torah-readings. In words that are heartrending to read in view of what was yet to come, he said: "Whenever we see that the troubles have grown so great that the Torah itself and the study halls and synagogues and academies are closed, we can take heart, because it is clear from exactly this situation that the damage is not merely earthly but cosmic, such that it has to be felt by God, and its end must be near."
These days, in a much more trivial echo of Nittel, Christmas has become a time of Chinese food and movies for many Jews in North America - the Asian restaurants and cinemas being just about the only establishments open. This year, the movie is likely to be Star Wars, so we have the chance to reflect on perhaps the most influential spiritual words spoken in the popular culture of the late twentieth century:
"The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."
George Lucas is popularizing Gandhi there. As the Mahatma said, at London's Kingsley Hall in 1931, "There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything," and the spiritual father of India's rebellion against the Empire of his day continued, "I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is, underlying all that change, a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates."
Which brings me to the way in which I like to observe this day - since, as a teacher of Torah in America, I tend to wind up wandering through dishabited halls of learning at Christmastime. I like to take this time to turn my ears toward the religious space outside Judaism, surfing the airwaves and the Internet to hear what is up in the spiritual wide world of our times. So much in that vein is featured on Christmas, which creates an optimal opportunity to tune in to the interface of the spiritual and the popular.
I have found some beautiful music that way - Mariam Matossian, singing "Arev, Arev," an Armenian folk song passed through the generations of her family, with her mother; the McDades, in a rendition of "The Angel Gabriel" that finally helped me understand the folk nature of Marian piety. It's how I happened upon that Gandhi quotation, and how I learned this year that in Senegal it is common for Muslim families to visit their Christian neighbors today, much as my family used to do on Berryman Street in Toronto.
A former student from my years of teaching in rabbinical seminaries asked yesterday how we might redeem the custom of Nittel. Perhaps this is how, by actively listening for quiet moments of incipience, recognizing that Christmas through the ages has often fallen horrifically short of being "a day of light, which dispels the darkness of fear and anxiety, a day of peace, which makes for encounter, dialogue and, above all, reconciliation," as Pope Francis says today, but considering how it - and many other days, in all our traditions - might be.