Engagement between Jews and Christians has never been better; interfaith councils exists in many communities. Conversations take place regularly at the organizational level. And theological and liturgical developments within Catholicism (and amongst many Protestant thinkers) have reshaped the perception of Jews and Judaism.
In spite of all this success, however, we have only scratched the surface in realizing the power of interfaith dialogue. Our focus has been on concerns and beliefs we share—the need to feed the hungry, work for peace, fight hate, build stronger communities. These are critical concerns.
We have not, however, delved deeply into the places where we differ. We have avoided the hard topics: Why do many Jews resist hearing the name of Jesus? Why do many Christians believe the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful God? Why do Jews care so much about the modern state of Israel? Why do many Christians proselytize non-Christians? These are topics that go the core of our identity. They can be difficult to discuss. Yet, true growth comes from engaging with the hard stuff. True dialogue asks not only respect. It also asks for the willingness to be challenged and changed—not changed in what we believe, but changed in how we understand and appreciate the deep beliefs that drive and sustain one another.
So how to we generate those conversations and build a deeper trust? Here are a few ways.
1. Start with difficult texts. I rarely study the Ten Commandments with my congregation. We all know they are good and critical. What is more challenging to study are the difficult parts of the Bible: Why does God command Abraham to sacrifice his first-born son? Why does tempt Adam and Eve with the Tree of Knowledge in the first place? These texts push us to think hard. We can do the same in interfaith settings. We can choose texts that make a little uncomfortable. A Jewish participant in the discussion might introduce the text from the Passover meal that asks God to destroy our enemies. A Christian participant might introduce the text from Matthew which reads, “His [Jesus’] blood be upon us and our children.” These texts may make us uncomfortable, yet true growth occurs outside the comfort zone, and in studying them we will discover how complex and rich they are. We will learn creative ways of understanding and interpreting them in the twenty-first century multi-faith world.
2. Experience each other’s worship. Some clergy will not enter into the house of worship of another faith. They believe it lends some kind of legitimacy to that faith’s truth, or betrays one’s own core beliefs. Such obstinance is sad and counter-productive. We appreciate the faith of another best when we see how important it is to them. What better way to see that importance than visiting their spiritual home? I have had transformative conversations with visiting Church groups after opening up a Torah scroll, showing and describing it to them, and then sitting down in the sanctuary to talk. I have also witnessed the depth of Passion story in attending Good Friday worship. Experiencing another’s worship opens us up to their truths.
3. Reveal what you love about your faith. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, shares a remarkable teaching credited to a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi.
“Imagine two people, “ he writes, “who spend their lives transporting stones. One carries bags of diamonds. The other hauls sacks of rocks. Each is now asked to take a consignment of rubies. Which of the two understands what he is now to carry? The man who is used to diamonds knows that stones can be precious, even those that are not diamonds. But the man who has carried only rocks thinks the stones are a mere burden. They have weight but not worth. Rubies are beyond his comprehension.
So it is, he said, with faith. If we cherish our own, then we will understand the value of others. We may regard ours as a diamond and another faith as a ruby, but we know that both are precious stones. . . . True tolerance, he implied, comes not from the absence of faith but from its living presence. Understanding the particularity of what matters to us is the best way of coming to appreciate what matters to others.”
To that we can only say Amen.
Evan Moffic is lead rabbi of Congregation Solel, a synagogue of five hundred families. Having officiated more than two hundred interfaith weddings, he has brought new understanding of the Jewish heritage to churches and Christian groups, including the largest Catholic and Presbyterian churches Chicago, where he lives with his wife and children.