I know that many Orthodox Rabbis and many Orthodox Jews have a jaded view of Thanksgiving. Sure, there are the required articles that debate the permissibility of celebrating a non-Jewish festival. Then there are the articles, historical and Halakhic, that debate the Kosher status of the turkey. But that’s not how I look at the issue of Thanksgiving. I am comfortable in following the views of those rabbis who see nothing wrong in celebrating the fourth (or is it the last?) Thursday in November by having a festive meal, and who consider the turkey kosher. I see something bigger about Thanksgiving.
Before the Pilgrims came to America, Jews were never viewed as individuals by the non-Jewish world. Even during the best of times, when Jews were not being persecuted or killed, but rather were honored in the halls of government, such as during the Golden Age of Spain, the nations of the world treated Jews collectively. I contend that even today in most other democratic countries, Jews are seen as a collective interest group.
The United States of America has always had a policy of not caring about collective groups of people. They care, or don’t care, about individuals. Here, Jews qua Jews are not granted rights or privileges. A Jew is merely an individual, like everyone else. This places a tremendous burden on a Jew who wants to cleave to his people. The government will not help him. The government will not stop him either. But even the attempt to stop him has had historic effects along the lines of reverse psychology that keep a Jew loyal to his people and his God. So the Government that doesn’t care one way or the other has been a challenge.
In the USA, Yiddishkeit is more difficult because it is all personal. But that makes it all the more rewarding. “Bishvili nivra haolam”, “The world was created for my sake” is not just a line, it is a way of life. In Europe, traditions and a lack of options made Jewishness the status quo. There is no status quo in America. We have to justify ourselves every day. Even though the Torah asserts itself as an obligation, nobody in the US will enforce it. It is up to us to enforce it through Simcha and real personal fulfillment.
Even when Moshiach comes, the American Jewish experience will be appreciated for this positive development. It is this that I celebrate. I offer my Thanksgiving to God at the turkey meal not for life’s blessings. Judaism has many other opportunities for that. On this last Thursday in November, I offer my thanksgiving to God for this mixed blessing of a gift called the United States of America.