What happens when we ask a question?
A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in the Teller Lounge on the historic Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with an Episcopal priest and a Muslim university chaplain — me in leggings and a denim shirt, the priest in a tweed suit, and the chaplain in a brightly colored hijab. The three of us had met a few times to discuss interfaith projects in Cincinnati but, as usual, our conversation drifted toward the topics of belief and community. While this was not our first meeting, it was the first time we met on HUC’s campus. Why? Because the Muslim chaplain who works just down the street asked to meet here. She said that she drives by all the time, curious about what was here, but didn’t feel she could just come by on her own… so she asked: “Hey, could we meet at HUC? I’d really like see campus.”
We over-complicate. We often don’t come out and ask for what we want. We are afraid of how we will be perceived. We worry about how our question will be received by others. We often find ourselves standing before a closed door. We don’t know what’s on the other side; it may be good, it may be bad, it may be insignificant. What is behind the door is uncertain. But what is certain is that we don’t know what it could be unless we take a deep breath, open the door, and walk on through. But what happens if we push ourselves and ask that question?
When this chaplain asked “could we meet at HUC?” she wasn’t just asking for a convenient meeting location. She was asking: “Will you let me into your world?” She had the courage to open the door with the hope that the unknown behind it could lead to something. And it did. It led to an afternoon during which we came to understand our peoples’ shared narratives and experiences. It led to fostering mutual understanding and a relationship based on respect and interest in one another.
A few years ago, I was staffing a Jewish New York trip for middle schoolers. I shared a room with a mom who was chaperoning the program. This woman, who was not Jewish, was deeply committed to and engaged in Jewish life. She was raising a Jewish family. She was on multiple congregational committees. She taught in the temple’s preschool. As we got to know each other better, and as I learned more pieces of her story, I went out on a limb. I asked a question. I opened the door. “Have you ever thought about converting?”
It was quiet. Those feelings of worry, fear, and panic that often accompany questions began to flood over me: Had I overstepped? Had I gone too far? She eventually broke the silence. “Well,” she said, “nobody ever asked me.” She went on to explain that she didn’t feel it was her role to invite herself into Jewish life; she said that, out of her deep respect for Jewish life, she didn’t want to make the assumption that she was welcome into this tradition and peoplehood. This woman who lived Judaism every day didn’t feel welcomed into Jewish life because nobody had asked the question; nobody had looked at her and asked if she wanted to convert. After living a Jewish life with her husband for twenty years, she was asked about converting for the first time in a hotel room in New York by a college kid.
The expression “wonder is the root of all knowledge” is generally attributed to Abraham Joshua Heschel. If we approached our world with wonder, propelling ourselves to ask questions, what could happen? What would our community look like? What kind of people would we be? Let’s be in touch with our wonder of the world. Let’s start asking questions. Maybe there will be something powerful on the other side of the door.
Jordy Cohen worked during the summer and fall of 2016 as the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue at Xavier University