I saw the other side for the first time in my life this week. It was during a visit to a Dominican monastery at the request of a unique soul, a friend, a friar—soon to be priest in the order. I initially balked as we Orthodox folk don’t usually engage in ecumenical discourse. A certain ever so slight twinge in our religious consciousness perks up as the notion of discussions about Jesus, the crucifixion and the apostles comes into focus. We are very comfortable presenting our side, sharing the beauty of Judaism with all who are curious about it; it’s generally, though, not a two way street.
But as my friar friend quite bluntly put it— perhaps you would like to find out a bit about what 95% of the people in the land in which you work believe“. I searched for a precedent in Torah for engagement with other religions but almost in vain. Bible is replete with excoriations about idolatry, not gestures to bridge religious differences.
But then I heard a fascinating dvar Torah from Rabbi Amnon Bazak one Friday during my weekly parsha class in Alon Shevut. He noted that the Torah records every aspect of Moshe’s early qualities except one. We quickly learn of his unyielding quest for justice, his willingness to stand against adversity, his connection to his heritage and his leadership attitude. We don’t, however, learn about his spiritual component; we know nothing of his metaphysical development–until he spends some time at his future Father in Law, Yitro. Yitro was the spiritual equivalent of a Pope in ancient times, when Moses stumbled upon his daughters at the well. The high priest of (all of?) Midian, the Midrash tells us that he tried out every other religion at the time before meeting Moses.
Perhaps Moses learned of his spiritual curiosity after deep discussions with his Father in Law about other gods and deities. Perhaps not finding out his truth led him to the mountain and strange bush on that day.
So Yitro was Moses‘ entrance into religion? Perhaps. If so then the relationship between them takes on even greater significance over the years. Rabbis debate whether Yitro converted or not; perhaps they had an ongoing discussion about God which either led to Yitro‘s eventual conversion or just up to that point–with a return of the high priest to his homeland to continue to administer to his flock.
My meetings with my friar friend will never turn into a competition to convince the other of the True Way, the Authentic Word; we have too much respect for each other and the spiritual mission each one has undertaken in his life. What? Now we spar to determine to whom belong the religious spoils?
No, I will not be swayed but I (and perhaps he too?) begin to appreciate the depth of the other’s faith. Gone are the days when we can stereotype the other’s religion with pithy catchphrases to sum up thousands of years of serious religious development: „all faith no law“, „creed vs. deed“, „monotheistic vs. polytheistic“. Instead let’s endeavor to believe that there were very wise people who spent lifetimes honing their religious philosophies and millions who lived and died for their beliefs.
This is our dialogue and my entrance into a world unknown to me. Engaging with a co-religionist and determining where we share similar feelings and frustrations but also where we draw lines and accept the different path taken. I invited him for a shabbat dinner and visited his monastery, but I will draw lines where my rabbis have told me to draw and I imagine he the same.