The Importance of Dialogue [Jewish Independent]

Below is an article I wrote for the local Jewish weekly about my time at the Cambridge Interfaith Programme’s summer school.

I have just returned from three weeks in gorgeous Cambridge, England, where I had the pleasure of participating in the Cambridge Interfaith Program’s summer school (CIP). For three weeks, 28 emerging or current religious Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders studied, debated, ate and relaxed together. The purpose, to my mind, was two-fold. We spent a significant part of the program studying together about our faith traditions, comparing, contrasting and generally learning. We also got to learn about what it means to live as a religious person of another tradition from people of that faith rather than from a textbook.

Every morning, after a buffet breakfast, we would gather together in groups of 10 or so, and engage in scriptural reasoning. Scriptural reasoning (SR) is a practice developed by the director of CIP, Prof. David Ford of the Cambridge Divinity School and Prof. Peter Ochs of the University of Virginia. The practice involves taking a passage from scripture (be it Tanach, the New Testament or the Qur’an) and studying it together. The catch is that only the text in front of the participants is fair game in making a comment or interpretation of that text. In other words, no using Rashi, other commentators or the Talmud – unless you can tie it back to the text at hand. Often, this is complicated further by the text not being a “complete unit” in and of itself, like an entire chapter of a given scriptural text. Rather, it may just be a few sentences.

This was an amazing new experience for many of us at CIP. What stuck with me, and leads me to want to incorporate SR into my life back in North America, is how much I learned from it, sometimes unexpectedly. I learned about myself – not just my tradition, which I thought I knew so well, but about myself as an individual practitioner of my religion and the relationship I have with my sacred texts. I also learned about just how small a sliver of the possible interpretations of a text I have ever thought of before. I learned about how others – not having grown up immersed in my sacred texts – see them for the first time. Finally, I learned about being comfortable challenging a traditional reading of a scripture that I had not considered my own (or do not). For a tradition as immersed in textual study as is Judaism, I see SR as a naturally beneficial way to engage in inter-religious dialogue.

We spent a lot of time teaching each other about the mundane and the spiritual within our religious traditions. Nothing makes me think more about my own tradition than sharing countless hours of open-ended time engaged in cross-examination of myriad aspects of that tradition. So often, when engaging in questions of importance to Jewish identity with other Jews, there are so many shared understandings of the topic that the basics are not aired. This may speed up the conversation and allow for nuanced positions to emerge, but it also shoves the building blocks of that conversation under the rug. By starting from the very beginning, like in SR, practitioners can learn more about themselves and about others than would otherwise have been possible.

One of the reasons why I wanted to attend such a program was because of the dearth of knowledge I had about Christianity and Islam. Spending the vast majority of my life in Jewish educational settings did little to expose me to the basic tenets of other faiths. I understand that the institutions in question had their reasons for educating their students exclusively in Judaism, but I see that decision as flawed. In the 21st century, growing up a religious Jew means being a minority on so many levels. Popular culture demonizes religion, and that, only when it deigns to speak of it at all. One of the biggest barriers still existing between people across the world and perpetuated constantly through fear, aggression and stereotype, is religious difference. This strikes me as odd, as I was staggered to learn at CIP just how much religious people have in common. This is especially true of Judaism and Islam, religions that share so much, including largely similar dialects and a focus on obedience to law – shariah or halachah, which mean, more or less, the same thing.  Further, all three religious traditions – and the countless sub-groups within each one – value very similar ideals, even as they strive for them in their own ways, backed by centuries of tradition. Love, kindness, helping the stranger and the poor, and seeing violence as a last resort are values that I witnessed and experienced across the religions represented. As religious communities, why would we not espouse an ethic of highlighting similarities and disregarding differences, especially when highlighting the latter only seems to lead to bloodshed and hate?

I also attended CIP to further my understanding of how such a cross-cultural experience was done successfully, in order to incorporate that experience into doing intra-faith work in the future. Interfaith work is a burgeoning field that has had a lot of success at bringing people together who might otherwise never speak. I see interfaith dialogue as being crucial, both for what it accomplishes on its own and for what it might teach me – and others who have similar aims – about how to bring different communities within the same religious tradition together for dialogue of a similar sort. Scriptural reasoning was born out of textual reasoning, the practice of studying one religion’s scriptures among members of that same religion. While that was not the focus at CIP, we were told repeatedly that such a practice is more volatile and more likely to involve flaring tempers than SR. This, more than anything, was a call for further study and activism in this area. It is hard to imagine uniting whole religious traditions without having any semblance of unity among the religious traditions themselves.

My hope is simple. As Pirkei Avot teaches us: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:16) Reaching out to an “other” is extremely hard – but can be extremely rewarding. The small gestures of welcome go a very long way in alleviating the fears of past generations. Cambridge sets an example that I hope will be emulated around the world.

You can see the original article here


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