“Two Holidays–Two Religions”

In addition to being a courageous fighter for social justice, Rabbi Olan was also one of the leading theologians of Reform Judaism.  It is in that role that we see him in this sermon, delivered January 7, 1968.

Rabbi Olan is very clear that no one religion has the whole truth (and that science doesn’t either), so the relationship between religions is complementary, not adversarial.[1]

While Rabbi Olan is very respectful of the millions who believe in the core Christian miracle (Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-Redemption), he does believe that the two older Abrahamic religions are fundamentally different.  His understanding is that for Jews, “building the righteous community” [takes place] “here on earth”, results from following God’s law, and is a communal rather than a private practice. 

His reading of the Christianity of his day is that salvation is personal (mediated by Jesus’s self-sacrifice), and happens in the next world, not in this one.  For traditional Christians, Rabbi Olan explains, God’s grace is necessary to save humankind from suffering because we are innately sinful.  The process that begins at Christmas with the Incarnation and is completed at Easter with the Resurrection is thus about God saving us from ourselves.

Hanukah, in contrast, is the commemoration of a historical victory over “the forces of tyranny and evil” in this world.  In Judaism, says Rabbi Olan, people are not considered innately sinful, but are free to choose: “[our] salvation is largely in [our] own hands and it is achieved by following the laws of God.”

That said, Rabbi Olan makes it clear that the perspectives of all religions are necessary to illuminate the relationship between humankind and God: “It is very important that each [religion] survive and keep alive its unique and distinct religious experience.”  “In the thoughtful understanding of… differences and in the grateful appreciation of each other’s importance to the hope and destiny of human life lies the way by which the kingdom of God is found for all…”

[1]      Pope Paul VI had promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s doctrine of ecumenism just 3 years earlier, in November 1964.

Follow this link to read the sermon text.
Follow this link to listen to the audio recording.

*Written by Frances M. Olan and Lionel S. Joseph*