Left to right: Archbishop JohnMichael Miller, Dr. Gregg Gardner, Fr. Nick Meisl, Dr. Jay Eidelman and RabbiJonathan Infeld. (photo by Rabbi Adam Stein)
“This is a unique opportunity to learn and growtogether. What better way to open ourselves to that holiday spirit, to welcomethe mysterious and send away the fear of the unknown,” said Congregation BethIsrael president Helen Pinsky in introducing the Dec. 5 program at thesynagogue on Chanukah and Christmas, which was co-hosted by Beth Israel and theRoman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.
After the lighting of a giant electronic chanukiyah by Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, the reciting of the motzi by Archbishop of Vancouver John Michael Miller and a latke-laden dinner, the crowd moved into the sanctuary to hear three scholars: Dr. Gregg Gardner, Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at the University of British Columbia; Fr. Nick Meisl, a professor at St. Mark’s College; and Dr. Jay Eidelman, who lectures on the Holocaust and Jewish history at UBC.
Infeld started things off with a short talk.
“The neighbourhood we grew up in, in Pittsburgh, was 50% Jewish or Catholic,” he said. “The kids did not refer to themselves as Jewish or Christian but as ‘Chanukah’ or ‘Christmas.’ We don’t love this, but it shows that the holidays have a particular power.”
Noting that, for many Jews and Christians of the past, neither Chanukah or Christmas were important as religious holidays, the rabbi quoted a documentary he had watched that argued that Charles Dickens had created Christmas, quipping that maybe Dickens “created Chanukah as well, in its modern version.”
Gardner spoke on the origins of Chanukah, noting it was a festival created by the Maccabees to mark their military successes against the Greeks in an effort to preserve traditional Jewish culture. “Ironically,” he said, “creating a holiday to honour yourself is, in fact, a very Greek thing to do.”
The “subversive” rabbis of later generations altered the holiday to downplay its militaristic elements and its focus on the Maccabees, Gardner explained, replacing that with a focus on God’s miraculous intervention in the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days in the rededicated Temple.
In his remarks, Meisl said the balloon of his “naive beliefs” about Christmas popped when, in the course of his studies, he learned that Dec. 25 was not Jesus’s birthday, but rather a date chosen for other reasons. He explored the theories linking the day to the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival of late December, or the Dec. 25 holiday of Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun). With humour, he quoted the ancient Christian theologian Origen, who questioned whether Jesus’s birthday should be celebrated at all, noting that, in the Hebrew Bible, only “bad people celebrate their birthdays.” In seriousness, he said it seems that it was around 336 CE that Christians began celebrating Jesus’s birthday on Dec. 25.
Eidelman took to the podium to the sound of the 1970s classic “Eight Days of Chanukah” by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, while changing from his suit jacket to a tacky Chanukah sweater, in the style of the dreaded Christmas sweater. His speech covered various historical and pop-culture themes related to the two holidays, with a focus on how Jews have imagined and reimagined Chanukah “as a way to define ourselves spiritually and a way to claim space in a culture largely based on Christian customs.”
After a short question-and-answer period in which people asked about the development of certain Chanukah customs and the role the story of the Maccabees has played in the Christian tradition, among other things, the archbishop wrapped up the event.
“This has been a wonderful evening of sharing the joy we each feel in the holidays with each other,” said Miller, who made a point of thanking everyone involved in the event by name, right down to the members of the catering and kitchen staff.
“The event was a splendid manifestation of the ties that bind Christians and Jews together in an age-old spiritual heritage,” Miller told the Jewish Independent by email. “Such occasions foster friendships and mutual understanding, and my hope is that they continue. I am very grateful to Rabbi Jonathan Infeld for his leadership role in interfaith relations.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.