THE BLOG
11/20/2012 11:21 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

What Thanksgiving Teaches Jews About Authenticity

Thanksgiving has not always been celebrated in the ways that we celebrate it today. In 1939, Fred Lazarus Jr., a Cincinnatian like me, lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move the date of Thanksgiving earlier in order to lengthen the Christmas shopping season. Thanksgiving has moved dates quite a bit since its 16th century origins, and the emphasis of the holiday has changed over time.

Few of us recite lines at our Thanksgiving table like this one from the movie Sweet November: "Happy-We-Stole-Your-Land-And-Killed-Your-People-Day!" Most of us won't think about Pilgrims and Native Americans at all. While we all know the holiday has authentic roots in our nation's history, it has become a day to relax with family and friends, express our gratitude, eat too much food and watch some football.

Thanksgiving celebrations continue to evolve over the years, even in the course of our own lifetimes. In many ways this represents our creativity -- the way we make our own meaning from experience. For some of us, this happens as we move from the "kid table" to the "adult table." Or when we celebrate on the fourth Friday in November if that's the day most convenient for our group to get together. And even with changes, nobody worries that our Thanksgiving celebration today is not authentic. In recognizing that there is no fixed way to observe the holiday, we are liberated to find contemporary meaning and inspired to discover our own authenticity in the celebration.

Such creativity is not only an American phenomenon, but a Jewish one as well. Too often, people think of Judaism as frozen in time. But the reality is that innovation and progress have been bedrocks of Judaism since its inception. Creating our own authentic experience is precisely what Judaism is about.

Before we know it, Hanukkah will be here; it's early this year, starting on Dec. 8! And Hanukkah is a great example of a holiday evolving over time. Many Jews only know of the story we learned as children -- the one where a small vial of oil lasts eight days by some miracle of God -- and we commemorate the miracle by eating oily potato latkes and greasy jelly donuts. Fewer Jews realize that earlier stories, ones written closer to the actual events, tell a different tale. II Maccabees, a book that covers the period from 175 to 160 B.C.E., tells a Hanukkah story about Jewish national power, a fractured community and a military struggle. It was later, during a time when the rabbis feared the Jews would rebel against Rome, that they de-emphasized Jewish might by reimagining the story into one about a miracle of God.

One of the most significant factors in Judaism's ongoing survival has been its willingness to reshape itself in response to the needs of the times. In religion, authenticity does not need to carry the meaning it has in art or archaeology or computer science, where it has to do with correct attribution of origin. Looking for a "correct" origin in Judaism is a search with no destination and little yield. We have no time machines, and even if we did, traveling to one moment in history still would not show us how Judaism was lived before or after that moment.

So when we talk about the authenticity of our religion, we must think of authenticity as we do in psychology and philosophy -- where being authentic means being real, genuine and truthful. Being authentic Jews is about writing ourselves into existence with intentionality and giving ourselves permission to evolve.

Holidays and rituals have profound value, but not when we just go through the motions. While it can feel easier to be told that there is one "right" way to do something, it is also really boring. For a journey is not so much about a destination as it is about the process of moving forward itself.

So, as we sit at our Thanksgiving tables this Thursday, and our Hanukkah tables in a few weeks, let us remember the celebration is not just about one snapshot in time that we seek to re-create. On Thanksgiving, we are free to replace the turkey with tofurkey, or the sugary pumpkin pie with a crust-less, Splenda concoction. We've welcomed a third football game to the holiday, not just watching the Lions' game and the Cowboys' game. There are many ways to be authentic.

We should feel equally free and open to changing our Judaism as we do with Thanksgiving. So, as you celebrate Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and every day, I wish you a "Happy-Find-Your-Own-Authenticity-And-Go-Make-Meaning-Day!"