Interfaith Ambivalence

I am fairly ambivalent regarding interfaith dialogue, which is the focus of my fellowship. On the one hand, as I am currently writing the chapter on my thesis about the Crusades, I see how bad the relationship between Jews and Christians once was! Even if nothing fruitful comes from interfaith dialogue, surely it is a good thing compared to the violence and animosity that once existed between “us” and “them.” Additionally, it can be very interesting to see how other faiths interpret human nature, their textual traditions, and the world around us. My best friend from high school, David, is a newly ordained Presbyterian minister, and I chose a student congregation this year that is near where he lives with Carissa, his wife, so that I can visit them. They occasionally come to the interfaith Torah study session held at the synagogue and provide unique perspectives that I enjoy learning about.

On the other hand, I have difficulty when people speak in an interfaith context as if Judaism and Christianity were analogous. As someone who identifies with Judaism in a strongly ethnic, perhaps even tribal way, Judaism does not seem analogous to Christianity from my perspective. The very name of the enterprise of interfaith dialogue assumes that it is two faiths that are engaging in dialogue. Yet I do not think of my Judaism as a faith, but rather as something much larger than that, which includes a religious element but is not defined by it.

Lately, I have had two thoughts about this ambivalence which may help me to cope with it. First, I have realized that part of my frustration in the past when dealing with interfaith dialogue has been that my partners in dialogue have not always been liberal in the same way that I am a liberal Jew. When I speak to David, we can engage in conversations about critical scholarship. He knows that the authors of the New Testament shaped their portrayal of Jesus to look like the suffering servant of Isaiah, and that Isaiah did not prophesy Jesus’ coming. Second, David and I are at similar levels of learning concerning our respective traditions. While Judaism and Christianity may not be analogous, the more the two sides of the dialogue are evenly matched in other ways, the more fruitful the conversation can be.

I had the idea to structure our dialogue program in parallel tracts, one for lay people and one for clergy, in order to capitalize on these realizations. I think that there is real potential for interfaith dialogue, but a tremendous amount of work has to be done so that participants are on the same intellectual playing field. As I reflect on my past experiences with interfaith dialogue, I realize that it was more often dueling monologues than true dialogue. Similarly, as I read Orit Kent’s work on chevruta study, I realize that it is a powerful model. Kent writes that chevruta study challenges participants to support and challenge one another.[1]  Each partner in the chevruta bares the responsibility of maintaining the conversation as dialogue. My job as facilitator will be to make participants aware of that responsibility and to give them the tools to fulfill it. My supervisor seems particularly adept at this, and so I hope that this is a skill which I can acquire which will both serve me well in my future life and career and also help me as I confront my ambivalence regarding interfaith dialogue.

Josh Herman

[1] Kent, Orit (2010), “A Theory of Havruta Learning,” Journal of Jewish Education, 76:3, 215-245.

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