This week Pope Francis began what will be regarded as a historical visit to the United States. His visit will include stops in Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia. While most observant Jews have probably seen headlines about the Pope hugging a small girl who crossed a police barricade and ran into the street to greet him, and how he has eschewed a limousine in favor of more modest transportation, these Jews, for the most part, regard the visit as largely irrelevant to them.  Most of these Jews are unaware that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the landmark document Nostra Aetate, in which the Catholic Church declared that the Jews are not responsible for the killing of Jesus, and whose covenantal relationship with God should not be regarded as broken. (This topic has recently been written about by Rabbi Dr. David Sandmel in conjunction with the Pope’s visit here).

The question of why observant Jews seem largely uninterested in the drafting of Nostra Aetate seems connected to a broader suspicion towards interreligious dialogue.  I have encountered this suspicion first-hand. Over the past two years I have become involved in a unique organization called the Jewish-Catholic Scholars’ Dialogue in Chicago. This group, which usually meets quarterly, invites Jewish and Catholic scholars to speak to an audience that is comprised of Jewish and Catholic academics and clergy members. Its success reflects a larger phenomenon in Chicago, which boasts a thriving community of religious academics who participate in interfaith dialogue. My recent involvement in this community has garnered two reactions from members of my Orthodox Jewish community. The first is a joke, which I’ve heard now about a dozen times: “So, have you converted yet?” (ha ha.) The second is more sincere: “Why bother with all of that?” These two reactions reflect the same uneasiness with interfaith efforts. Orthodox Jews tend to be uncomfortable with interreligious dialogue and often react to my activities with suspicion, presuming that “Either they are secretly trying to convert you to their religion, or you secretly want to convert to theirs – or both.”

Next week we begin to celebrate Sukkot, a holiday on which we celebrate the Israelites’ entry into the wilderness and God’s protection of them as they braved a desert journey towards a land that they had never been to. The Israelites’ vulnerability to both foreign nations and natural elements helped to concretize a covenantal relationship between them and God. While some may interpret this relationship as being dependent on the fact that the Israelites remain physically and ideologically separated from the nations, this may not necessarily be the case. We can also understand the story of the Israelites’ journey in the desert as one in which they temporarily withdraw from society in order to connect to and learn from the Divine, with the expectation that they are going to reenter society and, as the prophet puts it in Isaiah 49, be a “light unto the nations” by sharing these teachings with other communities. Indeed, the prophet Zechariah associated the holiday of Sukkot with a universalistic outlook by predicting that in the end-time, there will an ingathering of all nations to Jerusalem, where they will unite in common worship of the One True God and celebrate the holiday of Sukkot together (Zech 14:16).

In the spirit of this holiday, I want to address some concerns about interfaith dialogue that have been expressed to me over the past couple years, and I want to clarify why I think that interfaith dialogue can be so beneficial. These points are as follows:

  • Interfaith dialogue does not, and will not, compromise the integrity of participants’ religious conviction. I am not converting to Catholicism. I can also say with confidence that my Catholic colleagues are not going to convert to Judaism. Listening to members of other faiths speak about their religion does not threaten my own religious identity. In fact, it is the opposite. When I learn about Christianity and Islam, I gain appreciation of the common ground that these Abrahamic faiths share. I also get a more educated sense of the concrete foundational differences that make these religions distinct from one another. On the flip side, I am forced to learn more about my own tradition. As a professor of Jewish Studies at a Catholic graduate school, I am often called upon to participate in activities in which I am asked to present the “Jewish perspective.” This requires me to effectively articulate aspects of my own faith, which entails reflection and has given me a new understanding of various aspects of my own faith and practice.
  • Other religious faiths will teach their students about Judaism – it is better that they learn about Judaism from a Jew than from someone who has never practiced Judaism. The opposite side of the coin is true as well; it is in my best interest to learn about Christianity and Islam from Christians and Muslims, and not from people who practice within my own religious tradition. The main advantage to learning about another religion from someone who practices this religion is that you are more likely to get a sense of the diversity and nuance within a particular religious faith.
  • There are aspects of other religions that, when properly incorporated into my own religious practice, enrich my own religious experience. Last year my husband and I hosted a holiday party for the members of the Bible department at the Catholic Theological Union, where I teach. I asked one of the women attending whether she would say grace for the group before we began our meal. Her improvised blessing asking God to watch over our communities as we transition into the holidays of Chanukah and Christmas was moving and sincere, and something entirely foreign to my traditional experience. The idea that one might speak aloud to God in her native tongue, and completely improvise her prayer, is something that I wish would be incorporated into traditional Jewish practice – without compromising our established liturgy.
  • Dialogue and mutual understanding in this generation can help to prevent acts of violence and oppression in the next generation. This is the most obvious reason for interfaith dialogue. Yet some traditional Jews might note that in periods in which the Jews have become the most assimilated into their societies, they have ultimately suffered the greatest calamities at the hands of non-Jews, and therefore interfaith dialogue can have dangerous long-term consequences. It is therefore important to clarify that interfaith dialogue is not synonymous with assimilation. It is possible – and valuable – to enter into interreligious relationships with conviction and pride regarding the distinctiveness of one’s own faith. Dialogue and the mutual respect that results from it does not demand higher levels of assimilation. No member of any faith should feel pressured to downplay very real foundational differences between religious communities – differences that must be acknowledged and respected by all parties.

As we celebrate Sukkot this year, I hope that we pray for a peaceful and prosperous year not only for our own communities, but for all people. Having ended Yom Kippur on the spiritual high note of the shofar’s blast and the communal declaration that “Next year should be in Jerusalem,” it is helpful to remember that a “happy ending” for Jews must include a world in which all religious communities can practice their faith freely and thrive in a world in which each person is a light that offers more warmth and protection when residing in the glow of the light of others.