Encounters with God and the Other in Sacred Service

As a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow during the summer of 2016, I helped Hillel at Miami University prepare for its yearly open house, held during the university’s Alumni Weekend. Instead of creating programs, I tried to foster relationships and empower alumni to reconnect with their time as Jewish students at Miami University. Hillel staff and I displayed newspapers that featured Jewish life at Miami from the 1930s through the current decade, played a slideshow recounting life at Hillel throughout its history, and more. Our focus on relationships stemmed from Judaism’s high value for community, evident in Bavli Sanhedrin 39a: “Whenever ten are gathered for prayer, there the Shekhinah rests.” By bringing alumni together to pray — that is, to renew old relationships and build new ones — we engaged in עבודת הקודש, for we helped bring God’s presence into the world.

Later that summer, I also had the privilege and honor of working at Chautauqua Institution. Each summer, Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Religion brings together four young adults — a Jew, Christian, and male and female Muslim — to serve as coordinators for the Abrahamic Program for Young Adults (APYA). I served as the Jewish Coordinator during the summer of 2016. Together, my colleagues and I created new interfaith programs “to help participants to grow within their own faith, to grow in knowledge about other faiths, and to promote harmony among all faiths.” We led an interfaith text study on the theology of ecology, held a spoken word night exclusively for young adults, and offered a session in which attendees had the opportunity to roleplay scenarios in which theological and secular differences challenged the potential success of interfaith work. We also ran some APYA staple programs, including an interfaith scavenger hunt, conversations with the interfaith lecturers, and movie nights followed by conversation. We found that each of these events was tremendously successful in its own way. The text study, spoken word night, scavenger hunt, and movie night attracted large numbers of people. The roleplay and porch chats made for more intimate conversation. My fellow coordinators and I appreciated then and still appreciate the value of these events.

We also felt that dialogue alone did not suffice. Jews can tell Christians that they care for the hungry, but the latter have no reason to believe the former. Only the act of feeding the hungry paired with the explanation, “We feed the hungry because Judaism inspires us to do so,” can break stereotypes. So, in addition to dialogue, my fellow coordinators and I also held several action-oriented events in which we volunteered at a local food kitchen and wrote postcards to inmates. These programs required that we not only talk but also work with people whose religious and nonreligious beliefs differ from our own. As Eboo Patel has noted in his primer, Interfaith Leadership, therein lies the heart of interfaith leadership.

Engagement with the other also undergirds עבודת הקודש since קודש denotes both “holy” and “apartness.” The Hebrew title of this journal, עבודת הקודש, then, means not only “sacred service” but also “service of apartness,” of that which is different, fundamentally other. Sex and gender, ethnicity and nationality, intellectual and physical capacity, culture and socioeconomic status: these identity markers otherize human beings only to the extent that people believe in them. Race exemplifies this point. It empowered whites to disempower, enslave, and dehumanize blacks, and it made possible the murder of six million Jews. These horrors transpired because people believed in race. But Robert Sussman writes in The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea:

Today, the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans. Among those who study the subject, who use and accept modern scientific techniques and logic, this scientific fact is as valid and true as the fact that the earth is round and revolves around the sun.

Without belief in race, American slavery and the Holocaust may never have transpired.

Beliefs arguably constitute the most fundamental element of human identity. By working for the common good with people whose religious and nonreligious beliefs fundamentally oppose one’s own, one therefore encounters the holy other in human form. Interfaith cooperation is עבודת הקודש.

David Bloom is a rising fourth year rabbinical student and worked at Hillel at Miami University last summer.

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