A Case for Interfaith Dialogue

As I mentioned in a previous reflection, I have had some difficulty identifying just what the core value of interfaith dialogue is. Recently, however, I had an experience which demonstrated the importance of this enterprise. While on a visit to my student congregation, a young couple invited me over to their home for brunch. They have lived in the small community which I serve for less than a year, having moved from the much more heavily Jewish area of southern Florida. The husband of this couple is Jewish, and has fairly recently rediscovered his Judaism and grown more interested in exploring it. His wife is not Jewish, does not really identify with any particular religion, but is active in the synagogue and very supportive of her husband’s interest in his Jewish roots and finding a place in the Jewish community.

The topic of conversation at our brunch quickly turned into a discussion of the difficulties that the couple has faced in integrating themselves into the larger community in town because they are not affiliated with a church. They described a situation, which I have heard elsewhere, in which the synagogue in town is divided between older members who do not want to be visible in any way in the community and younger members, like this couple, who want to get involved. As a vestige of an era in which any attention received by the Jewish community was negative attention, these older members’ fear of anti-Semitism keeps them from involvement in the greater community. The younger members, on the other hand, view this as an antiquated belief based in a bygone era and believe the synagogue should play a greater role in the community.

The significance of this division is that this couple has tried to find a way to make friends and set down roots in the greater community, outside the synagogue, but feels that no “greater” community exists. Instead, the town is divided into this church and that synagogue, but none of them speak to one another or are involved with one another. The couple wants to do some charity work in town, but feels unwelcome at churches where they are not members. This seems like a fantastic opportunity for interfaith dialogue. By gathering these disparate communities together in dialogue and study, the barriers between them can be permeated. People like this couple who want to volunteer and get involved with charity but who do not have a particular religious affiliation can be involved in this process too.

People should feel welcome, included, and safe within the confines of their own house of worship and their own community. Yet we should also feel obligated to leave the safety of those confines. I recently got engaged, and so wedding imagery is on my mind quite a bit. It is often noted that the chuppah, or wedding canopy, is open on all four sides because a couple’s love for each other should not be confined to their home, but should radiate out to the community around them. Similarly, our houses of worship should be open so the rich learning and spiritual growth which they foster can work to improve the larger community. I hope that the work that I am doing at the Brueggeman Center can help to poke some holes in the walls that we too often build around ourselves, allowing the great qualities of all our different religious institutions to permeate the Cincinnati community as a whole.

Josh Herman

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