Thursday, December 18, 2008

Holiday Parties

I've often heard rabbis speak about office holiday parties as if they are obviously and unequivocally forbidden and it's troubled me. I'm not quite sure what the big deal is but I'm also not certain that all rabbis understand the varying circumstances.

For some people, missing a holiday has no career impact. For others, it might. I once had a senior executive (my boss' boss) personally ask me whether my wife and I were attending the holiday party, and when I said "No" he told me "Wrong answer." And what if you are a senior executive or even a CEO? It is almost impossible to consistently miss your own company's holiday party. This shouldn't be enough to permit the forbidden but it should be taken into account when there is room for judgment.

I'm going to try to explain why I think that there is room for different opinions but I want to be clear that this is just my thinking out loud and is not to be taken as any sort of halakhic ruling. Please ask your rabbi about this issue and do not reach any conclusion from just this discussion.

Click here to read moreI. The Problem

The main issue is a very explicit Gemara. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 8a) states that Jews in the Diaspora worship idolatry in purity. What does this mean? When a Gentile makes a personal celebration (like a wedding for his child), he invites Jews to the party and they attend. Even though they eat their own kosher food, the Torah considers it as if they are eating idolatrous sacrifices. As it says, "Lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, and one of them invites you and you eat of his sacrifice" (Ex. 34:15). The end of the verse implies that you may not accept an invitation from an idolater and, if you do, it is as if you are eating from his idolatrous sacrifice.

This law is quoted in the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah 152:1). However, there is a debate between the Taz and Shakh about it. The Taz writes that this is an actual biblical prohibition based on the verse quoted above. The Shakh (in his Nekudos Ha-Kesef) disagrees and argues that it is only a rabbinic prohibition. The concern is that the Jew attending this party will lead the host to thank his god, an idolatrous act that is indirectly caused by the Jew. This concern underlies other laws, as we will discuss.

This dispute between the Taz and the Shakh has a very practical ramification. What if the idolater will be offended by the Jew's rejection of the invitation (i.e. there is eivah)? If the prohibition is biblical then there is nothing the Jew can do unless his life is in danger. However, if the prohibition is rabbinic then we have ample precedent for this type of rabbinic prohibition to be overrode to avoid offending Gentiles.

Another practical ramification is if we know that the Gentile is non-religious and will definitely not thank any sort of god if the Jew attends. According to the Taz this makes no difference, but according to the Shakh this relieves the prohibition.

Which approach do we follow? R. Menasheh Klein (Mishneh Halakhos 7:118) argues that the Taz is correct and therefore there is no way to permit attending any such party, including office parties, which he mentions specifically.

Let me explain why I think it is clear that there is room to follow the Shakh.

II. Doing Business

The first Mishnah in Avodah Zarah states that we do not do business with an idolater within three days of his holidays. The main reason offered for this rabbinic prohibition is that if he conducts good business he will inevitably thank his god, and we do not want to be the cause of mentioning, thanking or worshipping an idol.

Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 2a sv. assur) ask why the practice in Medieval France was to do business with Gentiles, not only within three days of their holidays but on the holidays themselves. How can we justify ignoring this talmudic prohibition?

Tosafos offer three possible explanations for the contemporary practice. The first is that there is eivah, offense, and therefore this rabbinic prohibition is overridden. This is rejected because the proof that eivah could override this prohibition is not airtight and because a Jew could simply say that he's not interested in doing business (others object that if a Jews says that every single year, the Gentiles will notice the pattern and become offended).

Tosafos then suggest that since we know that these Gentiles do not worship idolatry, the prohibition no longer applies. There is talmudic evidence that this law was never intended as a blanket prohibition but rather only when we are concerned with the thanking of idols. The Gemara (7b) quotes opinions that this rule only applies one day before Gentile holidays or only the holidays themselves, because the reality in the different places was that only business on those days would lead to thanking idols. If today, meaning Medieval France, conducting business on their holidays would not lead to thanking idols, then this prohibition does not apply at all.

The third answer is based on a ruling in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Avodah Zarah 1:1). The Yerushalmi states that if a Jew arrives at a town during a Gentile holiday when everyone is celebrating, then he may join their celebration because he is machanif. Tosafos seem to explain the word "machanif" as meaning that they know that he isn't really celebrating and is just trying to be friendly with his business colleagues. While this is the way Tosafos understand "machanif", it is clear that other rishonim (Rosh, Ran) understand it as meaning that there is eivah. If you come to a celebration then you join in so you don't offend anyone, even if it is on a Gentile holiday.

III. Offending

Clearly, this Yerushalmi that Tosafos utilize is significant for our discussion. It explicitly permits joining an idolatrous Gentile celebration -- according to Tosafos when it is clear that you are doing it for business reasons and according to the Rosh when you do it so as not to offend. Significantly, the Tur and Rema in Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De'ah 158:12) rule according to this Yerushalmi.

If that is the halakhah, then let us look at contemporary holiday parties.

  1. They aren't religious celebrations. Most large companies nowadays try to accommodate people of all religions and do not have explicitly religious celebrations. These are "holiday" parties and are entirely secular. If something even remotely religious happens, like singing Christmas carols or someone entering dressed as Santa Claus, I would personally leave, although I'm not convinced that either of the two examples I mentioned are actually religious. But really we are just talking about a neutral holiday party.

  2. Gentiles today do not worship idolatry and, even if they do, they do not thank their god that a Jew who works in their legal department attended a mandatory business party (reason 2 of Tosafos).

  3. People get very offended if Jews as a group, or even religious Jews as a group, refuse to go to the company's holiday party. The company spends a lot of money on what they consider to be a morale booster and if you refuse to participate, especially after they make certain that there is nothing religiously offensive and glatt kosher food is available, you are undermining company morale and offending executives (reason 1 of Tosafos and reason 3, according to the Rosh).

  4. It is clear that people are there because they have to be. You don't normally make parties and invite everyone in the company. This is a mandatory company event, which you are attending for business purposes (reason 3 of Tosafos).
IV. Parties

The ruling of the Rema about arriving at a town and finding a celebration seems to me to be a proof against the Taz, who claims that there is a special prohibition against attending a Gentile celebration. How can "machanif", however you define it, override a biblical prohibition? I assume that the Taz would say that the case of the Yerushalmi, that the Rema quotes, is when you aren't invited. But if you are invited, then it is biblically prohibited. I find this to be an unconvincing distinction.

Another possible distinction is between a personal party and a communal party. Perhaps the Taz would say that there is a biblical prohibition against attending an idolater's personal party (such as a wedding he makes for his son) but a communal holiday celebration does not fall under the biblical prohibition. It is only rabbinically forbidden and may be overrode for "machanif" concerns.

Notably, the Levush explicitly rules that eivah overrides the prohibition against attending a Gentile party (to which the Taz objects). This is significant because it contradicts the Taz's rationale. More recently, R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De'ah 2:117) ruled similarly -- against the Taz.

V. Other Concerns

I know that some might object that the Gemara (Megillah 12a) condemns the Jews of Persia in the time of Purim for attending the banquet of Achashverosh. But you have to remember that Achashverosh was an idolater. It could very well be that he performed idolatry at the (very long) party. It is almost certain that there was debauchery and, according to some midrashim, it seems that there was nudity.

Which brings us to an important sidepoint. Even if it is permissible to attend a party, there might be things going on at that party that are highly inappropriate. On this, it varies greatly from company to company. Some have parties where there is no alcohol. Others have alcohol and mixed dancing. Some, I am told, can get even more inappropriate.

R. Hershel Schachter once told me that it is forbidden to be in a room where mixed dancing is going on. As he said, the Gemara comments on the first verse in Tehillim that you shouldn't walk with sinners because that could lead to standing with them, which could lead to sitting with them. So of course you can't sit with them while they are sinning. I later found a responsum by the Maharam Schick (Orach Chaim, no. 71) in which he also rules that you are not allowed to be in a room where people are sinning (in his case, praying without a mechitzah).

However, a few years ago, the newsletter Halachically Speaking had an issue on mechitzah and quoted the Halikhos Bas Yisrael (ch. 7 n. 35) as ruling that you are allowed to remain in a room where people are mixed dancing (here, note 41; see the English edition of Halichos Bas Yisrael, p. 113 n. 40: here). Or, at least, there is no inherent prohibition to being in such a position but you have to be very carefuly not to see the dancing. So, if there is mixed dancing at the party, according to R. Schachter you must leave the room but according to the Halikhos Bas Yisrael you should but you don't have to (although you may not see it so you must turn your back to it).

In general, though, a little common sense and sense of propriety should get you through the ordeal. It is important to know when to say that you are uncomfortable and want to step out, and when to simply turn your back and not look at certain activities.

The halakhic authorities also seem to be very concerned about intermarriage, and are therefore hesitant to be lenient. I just don't know if holiday parties are the hotbed of intermarriage that they once were, now that Jews are so integrated into secular society. There have been major social changes since 1960.

VI. Sources

Here are the sources I've found that explicitly discuss holiday parties:
  • The Mishneh Halakhos quoted above, who forbids them (link).
  • The She'arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah on Avodah Zarah 8a, who seems to forbid them and says that you have to be smart about them.
  • R. Doniel Neustadt, The Daily Halachah, p. 86, who permits them in theory but in practice does not recommend staying long in such environments (link).
  • R. Yaakov Klass, who begrudgingly permits them (link 1, link 2).

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