Wading Into Interfaith Dialogue

As I prepare to engage in three weeks of interfaith encounter and dialogue, I have been thinking about what it requires of a person to successfully engage in such work.  Holding up my religion critically so that it can be seen as being on par with other human endeavours of making meaning out of our lives is an ideal I already hold.  However, learning a shared language to speak about all of the diverse issues which practitioners of different faiths might have issue with in such a short time seems daunting.  A great amount of open-minded learning will have to take place, which is a challenge.

In Jewish-only or Jewish-dominated spaces, there is so much that does not need to be said.  While that sense of a shared language can alienate those in any given space that do not come to the table with all of the shared cultural and religious references that the majority might, it also allows for a tremendous amount of communication when all those present do share that background.  In interfaith dialogue I feel like it is exactly the opposite, as the beginning of any such sustained dialogue must be, as Leonard Swidler says in The Dialogue Decalogue: “unlearn[ing] misinformation about each other and begin[ing] to know each other as we truly are.”  Not only are we not entering this space with so many of the basics agreed upon (or at least mutually understood), but we need to teach each other what we take to be the fundamental aspects of our faiths that we wish to propagate in the world of interfaith dialogue.

Swidler talks of two further stages in interfaith relations, stages that I can only hope to taste during such a short program.  Second, he says, “we begin to discern values in The partner’s tradition and wish to appropriate Them into our own tradition.”  Finally, “we together begin to explore new areas of reality, of meaning, and of truth, of which neither of us had even been aware before.”  Entering into a space with such lofty expectations — aiming to consciously reconfigure the way we relate to the core of who we are as religious people, and doing so almost exclusively with people who do not share our religious frameworks — is no mean feat.  And yet, the possibility continues to fascinate me, and I imagine that, if I saw Pardes, with its diversity of Judaism, as a vibrant space for self-exploration, than kal va’chomer (or a fortiori) I stand to get even more out of genuine interfaith dialogue.

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