12/16/2013 10:39 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Was Santa Claus White? A Rabbi Weighs In

A week after the death of Nelson Mandela, one of America's most popular news stories is the debate over Santa Claus's race. In commenting on a story published in Slate Magazine, Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly commented that Santa Claus was white. Later she mentioned Jesus was white as well.

Since then she has been lambasted by comedians, activists, scholars and professional pundits. I profess to be saddened much more by the reaction than the comments themselves.

As a rabbi, neither Jesus nor Santa Claus are central to my religious experience. But I am amazed by the stridency and swiftness with which a holiday season can be consumed by a polarized political debate.

We can stay in the spirit of the season by considering the following:

1. There is a difference between historical and cultural truth:

To say Santa Claus and Jesus are white is an accurate cultural statement. Artists throughout history have depicted them in that way. Yet, the purpose of such depictions was not to proclaim racial identity. Seeing them in that way injects our own political sensitivities into the past.

2. Focusing solely on race is a form of idolatry:

The greatest rabbi of Jewish history, Maimonides, said that God is beyond all description. God encompasses everything. Thus, any of our attempts to describe God's appearance imposes a human limitation on what God is.

This same logic can be applied to other religious figures. To focus on the race of Jesus or Santa Claus is to limit their meaning. The father of the author of the Slate article made this point beautifully. As the author, Aisha Harris, writes, "Eventually I asked my father what Santa really looked like. Was he brown, like us? Or was he really a white guy? He replied that Santa was every color. Whatever house he visited, jolly old St. Nicholas magically turned into the likeness of the family that lived there."

What a beautiful answer. It affirms that Santa is not a real person but an idea whose meaning we trivialize when we try to fit it into a box.

3. We need to lighten up:

Hanukkah is the Festival of Light. Christmas features a tree ablaze in light. This is the season of light. And we can use it. Dreariness has not only affected our weather. It has infiltrated our political and cultural dialogue. Perhaps we need a rabbi to say it: When we talk about Santa Claus, let's lighten up. Let's take a page from the lyrics of a song by the "Geezinlaws."

If there ever was a time to lighten up, it's Christmas!

If there ever was a time to chill out, then it's now!

If there ever was a time to relax and have a ball,

Just decorate the tree and give a friend a call,

If there ever was a time to lighten up it's now!"

To that I can only add "Amen."