Time To Stop Hiding Religion

There has been some controversy as of late regarding the placement of Christmas trees in public spaces in the Houses. In Leverett House this issue has burst into the fore, and on the editorial pages of this paper opinions have flown back and forth on the subject.

One student opposed to such public displays asserts that Harvard as an institution “needs to refrain from establishing religion.” Nonsense. Harvard is a private establishment that was originally founded to train ministers, and to this day maintains a diverse and active religious establishment in the form of the United Ministry. Harvard is not bound to refrain from establishing religion, nor should it be. In this light, the question of Christmas trees and public decorations becomes a specific policy question, not a broad issue of basic principles, and these specifics themselves must be discussed.

The way in which Hanukkah will be celebrated by Jewish students on campus this year has been promoted as a model for all such observances. Lighting the Hanukkah lights is characterized as a low-key affair, with Jewish students lighting these candles quickly in common rooms, leaving promptly at the conclusion of the ceremony, and generally keeping things quiet and out-of-the-way. I find this vision of holiday observances deficient from both a Jewish perspective as well as from the perspective of a Harvard student at large.

From a Jewish perspective, one of the fundamental tenets of the lighting of the Hanukkah candles is the notion of Pirsum Ha’Nes, Hebrew for “publicizing the miracle”—the miracle of the restoration of the Temple lights that is central to the story of Hanukkah. The notion of furtively lighting one’s Hanukkah candles, crouching low to stay out of view, is a direct violation of the primary spirit of these laws. Lighting Hanukkah candles in common rooms out of concern for fire safety has nothing to do with a desire to keep religion out of view.

And from the perspective of a Harvard student, I find the notion of keeping these holiday observances strictly out of sight to be a disappointment. Harvard College is a close-knit and diverse residential community, which welcomes and supports all sorts of students. Harvard wisely does not refrain from engaging us on spiritual and religious terms when taking over significant portions of our personal lives—we eat Harvard food, sleep in Harvard beds and worship in Harvard churches, synagogues and mosques. As a Harvard student, I expect my University, which has taken over so much of my residential life, to provide me with a complete personal environment. Which means that if one expects to have Christmas decorations in one’s home, even dining room, then Harvard should accommodate that. And if I want a sukkah (a Jewish temporary ritual structure) in my House courtyard, then the University should also allow me that (which in fact they do), and not force me to hide these parts of me for fear that someone with different needs or desires will feel bad that mine are being met.

Students come to Harvard expecting a diverse and lively environment. To stifle the public practice of one’s religion is bad enough, but I also feel a loss contemplating the possibility that I won’t be able to observe, learn about, or even share in the practices of others. If I didn’t want to be exposed to new or different things, perhaps even by fiat or necessity, then I would not have come here. And for members of the community or the University to deny me such an environment is an abrogation of my rights and their responsibilities.

I did not come to Harvard to exist in a bland, colorless environment. Public holiday observances, secularized or still heavy with religious meaning, are an integral part of a vital and lively community. So give the Christian students their public Christmas trees. In a way, while I do not practice their religion, they are my Christmas trees too.

Noam B. Katz ’04, a Crimson editor, is a history and science concentrator in Eliot House.