Interfaith Dialogue: Itinerary Notes

Interfaith engagement is one of the pillars of rabbinic service and leadership. From dialogue to social justice efforts, from learning and worshiping together to building bridges and opening doors to understanding, rabbis, along with other clergy and lay partners, strive to build stronger and kinder communities.

The aims of interfaith dialogue are threefold: to understand; to appreciate; to cooperate. To “understand” means to learn about one another’s faith, values, history, and culture; to “appreciate”, means to cultivate respect and empathy for other faith traditions and communities and to cultivate trust and hope in the process. To “cooperate” means, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would put it, to move from “interfaith” to “interworks” in joint efforts to improve society and the world.

All of these aims require both an “affirmation of selfhood” and a “confirmation of difference.” Only then is it possible to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In interfaith relations we seek unity in diversity. We strive for the universal without abdicating the particular. Regrettably, much of interfaith dialogue today is an effort to minimize and blur distinctions. When boundaries are so blurred as to render individuals and groups indistinguishable, dialogue becomes monologue and diversity becomes groupthink. We must enter inter-religious dialogue as bridge builders, but also as guardians of history and traditions. Religions must acknowledge the bigotry that they have sometimes fostered and discern when practitioners and interpreters have taught intolerant ideas. Dialogue requires honesty and is hard work.

We are not just individual seekers but representatives of our respective religious traditions and polities. We cannot lose sense of the collective. We cannot be welcoming of others without a sense of our own belonging. Even a Sukkah, the supreme symbol of hospitality, has walls as well as an entry way. In order to welcome guests we need to maintain a home into which to welcome others, with all its distinctiveness. The fringes of the Tallit remind us that our identity does not end at the hems of our garments. Yet, the fringes need a cloak, a fabric to which they are attached and secured. We need the cloak of tradition and the strength of community in order to reach out, to offer and seek blessing.

A current challenge for Jews involved in interfaith dialogue is to faithfully communicate the role of the land, the people, and the State of Israel in Jewish consciousness and identity. Even among Jews, there is a wide spectrum of opinion in this regard. Realizing that from a diasporic platform we are not going to resolve difficult political issues in the Middle East, it is important, however, to represent the centrality of peoplehood as a factor of Jewish identity. Judaism is not only about beliefs and behaviors, but about a sense of belonging to a historic people and its association with an “old-new land”. Israel is not just an ancestral biblical memory and a “holy land”, but a present reality and future hope. While it is perfectly appropriate to criticize specific policies of any Israeli government, as Israeli citizens regularly do, and with full acknowledgment of legitimate Palestinian national aspirations, it is not conducive to dialogue to deny the right of existence of the State of Israel.

One of the theological challenges of interfaith and intra-faith dialogue for a religious naturalist is to engage with people within and across religious traditions who have supernaturalist understandings of religion. This pertains to issues of revelation of scriptures, divine providence, election or chosenness, reward and punishment, world to come, etc. I regard Judaism as neither supernatural nor meta-historical. It is neither heavenly ordained nor divinely determined. Judaism is for me what Jews do and hope; it is our memories and our imagination. Judaism is a most satisfying and fulfilling way of growing as a person spiritually, grounded in community, inspired by moral values and adorned by holy traditions that reveal the godly in our lives and point to the possibilities of a better world.

In interfaith dialogue, we engage other religious interlocutors and traditions from the vantage point of their self-understanding and acknowledge how different traditions point to values of holiness and the possibilities of a better world.

Religions are much like languages, different universes of discourse through which the spirit communicates, individually and collectively. Each religious tradition has its own vocabulary, grammar, rhythm, and prosody. Languages are meant for dialogue, not monologue; interfaith dialogue is the conversation among religions that allows for the translation of faith into communal life. It adds new perspectives, explores and pushes the horizons of love and justice for all.

Religions are traditions colored by joy and tragedy, vision and blindness, wisdom and folly, altruism and selfishness. The world’s religions are collective journeys of the spirit to discern the call of the divine through history. In interfaith encounters, we are invited to bring ourselves to participate in each other’s travelogue, to journey together and grow from each other’s itineraries and to explore new destinations.

May our travels be safe, the company friendly, and every arrival, a destination of peace.

(Adapted from my notes at a panel presentation on “Multifaith Relations:  Faith, Friendship, and Justice” at the Reconstructing Judaism Convention, March 23-27, 2022.)

About the Author
Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, Indiana.
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