For some people, the idea of a deep friendship with someone from another religion is quite threatening. They are worried that their faith could be corrupted or that the other person may surreptitiously try to convert them and their fear prevents them from appreciating the benefits for their own spiritual life. I consider myself truly blessed to count among my friends many non-Jews. My experience in multicultural Australia taught me the value of learning from those who are different from myself. I have been greatly enriched by my encounters with the religious ‘other’ and believe that my friends feel the same way.
I discovered at an early age that ‘religious’ people share certain values, regardless of the faith system to which they belong. We share the idea that there is a power greater than ourselves to determine right from wrong. We share a sense of responsibility towards our fellow human beings and feel obligated to make the world a better place. We share a profound sense of purpose in our lives and, as I have written previously, a strongly optimistic view of the future. It was not by coincidence that my best friends at school were religious girls – Catholics and Protestants mainly.
Religion includes altruism – but my religious perspective and that of most of my friends does not preclude us seeking personal fulfillment. In a true friendship there is both giving and taking. It is only when the sense of benefit is reciprocal that the relationship can be defined as ‘friendship’. How wonderful it has been for me to have my friends of all faiths share my milestones and for all of us when we can offer support to each other in times of need.
The most difficult time in my life was when my son was a lone soldier – he serving in Israel and my husband and I still in Australia. It was fine when he enlisted but not so fine when he found himself in service during the Lebanon War of 2006. The scenes on Australian television screens were horrific and I worried for his safety and for his psychological well-being. How uplifting it was for me when my non-Jewish friends, all of whom were ideologically opposed to Israel’s position in the war and all of whom were bombarded by the media images, offered me support and encouragement, from one mother to another. Our relationship overrode our political differences.
One of my most moving experiences was when I was explaining to a Catholic priest, who is also an indigenous Australian, the connection we Jewish people have to this land. He started crying. He said that this was the first time he had heard someone from another people articulate the way he felt about his land (Australia). We both learnt something important about ourselves and about each other that day. The thing that we each had felt was most distinctive about our spiritual lives turned out to be something we shared.
On another occasion, a Buddhist friend explained to me the difference between ‘forgetting’ and ‘overcoming memory’. For the first time, I understood the commandment to both ‘remember’ Amalek and ‘blot out his name’. I had always thought of it as an impossible paradox. I now understand that one can ‘remember’ by owning an unpleasant memory and transforming it into a positive challenge. In that way, the memory is ‘blotted out’ – but you still remember.
For women, in particular, interreligious friendships can offer great support. Discussions I have had with Muslim colleagues have helped me clarify my own position on ‘modesty’ and to feel comfortable with my decision to cover my hair. Beyond modesty issues, women struggle within many established religions to reconcile our feminist aspirations and the status afforded to us within the religious hierarchy. It is wonderful to be able to share my dilemma with others struggling with the same issue. How heartening it is to have others understand that your religious life is not a ‘compromise’ with your values but an expression of them.
A reality of life in this country is that it is difficult to form deep friendships with people who practise a different religion. One factor is a simple matter of the lack of encounter. Education, the economy and cultural life are mainly segregated, partly because of the lack of a common language and partly as a matter of policy of maintaining multiple cultures. Many Jews speak only Hebrew; many Muslims and some Christians speak Arabic and have little or no Hebrew. The truth is that religion is so fully intertwined with identity and social networks that for most of us a great effort has to be made to develop more than a passing acquaintance with someone outside our natural day-to-day circles.
But I believe that we would all be enriched, as individuals and as a society, if we made the effort. This requires us to find opportunities to speak to each other and develop a language of discourse – not just identifying a neutral language such as English but also learning the right vocabulary and nuances to ensure that genuine communication is taking place. When a common language can be found, the rewards of a relationship with someone whose spiritual life is different from one’s own include a much deeper understanding of who you are, a greater appreciation of your own spiritual heritage and new ways of reading your own sacred texts which imbue them with even greater depths of meaning.
It might start with the ‘language’ of joint activity or sharing a pleasant experience or even a difficult one. Then, as trust is built, the relationship can gradually move to the level of real friendship – one which has a spiritual element to it through the shared awareness that the Creator of the universe chose to make us all and to make us all different.
Peta Jones Pellach is a fifth generation Australian. She made Aliyah in 2010 and took up her position as Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia, India, Iceland Poland and Morocco to participate in and teach interreligious dialogue. She is also a teacher of Torah and Jewish History, a Scrabble fanatic and an Israeli folk-dancer.