On Katrina
Preparing for chaplaincy

Celebrating dialogue

Happy Arrival Day, commemorating the anniversary of the first arrival of Jews on American shores! In the announcement preceding this year's blogburst, Jonathan wrote,

I ask only that the entries touch somehow on Jews, Judaism, Jewish thought, perceptions of Jews or interaction between Jews and gentiles. Like the previous two Arrival Days, this one will also focus on a theme. In 2003, the theme was the American Jewish past and in 2004 it was the future; this year, the focus will be on American Jews as part of a larger whole.

The part/whole relationship I want to blog about is how Judaism in general, and American Judaism in particular, relates to other religious traditions -- and the paradigm shift I hope we're experiencing in that regard. I believe Judaism can best safeguard its integrity through relinquishing triumphalism, and I think the I-Thou dialogic impulse is one of our greatest strengths. Hopefully this blog post will begin to explain why.


I've blogged before about Reb Zalman's teaching that in a planetary sense, each religion is a vital organ in the body of humanity: that it's foolish to speak in terms of our religion being "better" than another (or our religion being "right" and another being "wrong") because who could claim that a heart is better than a liver? It's a beautiful idea, and it has a lot of currency in the Renewal movement, but it's still far from mainstream.

Historically, the Jewish community has been closed to ideas like that one -- indeed, to religious pluralism in general -- arguably with good reason. It's not hard to call to mind places where, and time periods when, Jews weren't permitted to own land or to live outside the Jewish Quarter; correlation is not causation, but I see a relationship between those historical circumstances and our communal tendency to keep to ourselves. One of the traditional understandings of what it means to be a "holy community unto God" is to keep ourselves separate, apart, from other nations. (That impulse is reflected in our liturgy -- just look at the opening lines of the traditional Aleinu prayer.)  Our worship style, our sacred language, our modes of dress and our dietary laws all served to distinguish us from those around us.

Three hundred and fifty-one years ago today, when Jews first landed on American soil, the groundwork was laid for that to change. As the landscape of Judaism has broadened globally (thanks to the changes wrought by the haskalah and the concomitant profusion of Jewish denominations), the American Jewish landscape has followed suit. Today some American Jews enjoy a life and lifestyle our ancestors could never have imagined: we dress like other Americans, eat like other Americans, worship in ways recognizable to other Americans, intermarry with other Americans. Of course, there are also American Jews who live in closed enclaves, continue to speak Yiddish, and dress and eat and worship as their ancestors did (think Kiryas Joel.)

To imagine American Judaism as a bifurcation between those two paths, exemplified by Classical Reform Judaism (which some would call assimilationist, with its lofty temples, organs and choirs, vernacular prayer, and individualistic approach to taking on mitzvot) and by Hasidism (which, in many ways, would be recognizable to my Russian and Polish forebears if they could travel forward in time) is a drastic oversimplication. These are two points on a continuum with endless variations of belief and practice between them. But I think these two very different ways of being Jewish exemplify two basic ways of dealing with  gentile America: engagement (which often involves letting go of the customs that distinguished Jews from others) and refusal to engage (which often involves clinging to Jewish customs and actively ignoring others' religious or cultural practices).

Both extremes strike me as flawed. If we assimilate entirely, we lose the cultural richness of longstanding tradition (and the accumulated wisdom of millennia of Jewish thought and practice); if we disengage from mainstream America -- and, by extension, from other faith-traditions -- we lose the pleasure of dialogue (and the accumulated wisdom of millennia of non-Jewish thought and practice). I want the good parts of both of those paths. I want to engage with other traditions in a way that preserves Judaism's integrity.

In other words, I want to see more American Jews participating in ecumenism. That's not to say that I want to dilute Jewish practice; engaging with other traditions doesn't mean watering-down who we are or what we do. But it does mean abandoning triumphalism, which is not always an easy task. It requires that we interact with non-Jews in a spirit of frank and open curiosity, and that we respond to their curiosity without defensiveness. And it requires that we let go of the baggage we tend to carry vis-a-vis Christianity, the dominant religious force of our nation, which many Jews secretly fear will swallow our tradition whole if we let down our guard.

Sounds risky, doesn't it? Letting go of our insistence that our religious tradition is "right," opening our eyes to how other traditions do things, and opening our doors and our hearts to the millions of non-Jews who surround us? Actually I think the far greater risk is not doing so. The time for insularity has passed. The rains are over and gone, Judaism no longer exists in a vacuum, the genie won't go back into that bottle. Turning our backs on the outside world, on the varieties of American religious experience and expression, is bound to be unsuccessful. No matter how tightly we try to circle the wagons, the outside world is going to penetrate. (How many metaphors can I mix in this one paragraph? Only the Shadow knows!)

Avoiding connection or contact with other traditions gives the (mistaken) impression that we fear Judaism won't withstand comparison, and that's precisely what we don't want to convey to the young, smart, socially-engaged people at the margins of our communities who are debating whether or not they want to affiliate with American Judaism. The inward focus which may well have saved our communities in previous centuries isn't helping us now, and I think we need to change how we relate to other traditions. That trend has already begun; I believe it is incumbent upon us to continue it.

Once upon a time an observant Jew would never have considered setting foot in somebody else's house of worship, for fear of committing the sin of avodah zarah (foreign service or foreign worship). Jews weren't interested in how other people prayed, or what other people's practices were; we concerned ourselves with ourselves, and other religions weren't our business. I understand that many Jews still feel this way (indeed, I've corresponded with some VR readers who do!) but I'd like to gently suggest that this worldview may have outlived its usefulness. In the United States today, where so many religious traditions live cheek-by-jowl, it's impossible to ignore other religions...and I think engaging in real interreligious dialogue will strengthen, not weaken, American Jewish tradition. In order to engage with other traditions, we need to be firmly planted in (and educated about) our own -- and the strengthening of Jewish knowledge and identity which is a prerequisite for dialogue will serve us well.

What does this mean in practical terms? Maybe it means opening our houses of worship to others, and making a point of visiting other houses of worship to see how other people connect with God. Maybe it means entering into interfaith text study, reading our common sacred texts (or each others' sacred texts) with each other. Maybe it means making a point of welcoming interfaith couples and families into our shuls and our communities, instead of keeping them at the fringes because they don't fit our notions of what "Jewish" means. Maybe it means making these things a priority, instead of a second thought. Above all it means putting ego aside, imagining ourselves in different religious shoes, and figuring out what we have to teach the larger American community -- and what we have to learn.

"The dialogical mentality differs from the disputational mentality," Reb Zalman writes. "Dialogue is collaborative. Dialogue sees that there is better sight in two eyes than in one." And, elsewhere,

We may look to a discussion in which all partners are equal, open to each other and caring for the truth, each responding from the position of a loyal adherent to his or her own religion, standing in the presence of the God who witnesses this sharing.

Doesn't that sound grand? In some matters, of course, we (Jews and others, I mean) will have to agree to disagree. For all that our paths may be parallel, they aren't identical, and they shouldn't be. (God forbid the stomach should try to become the brainstem!) But I think our lives can only be enriched by real interaction with each other -- and, speaking as an American Jew who is deeply invested in the future of Judaism, I love to imagine how my tradition will flower when the constraints of insularity are removed.

I don't think it makes sense to speak in terms of "The" American Jewish community, as though there were only one. (Are we talking about Federation? The American Jewish World Service? The collection of denominational, and nondenominational, rabbinic assemblies and organizations? What body, or bodies, could possibly claim to speak for us all? Even Orthodoxy isn't unitary, much less American Judaism as a whole!) But if enough sub-communities within the greater American Jewish community took steps toward ecumenism, toward abandoning insularity and reaching out to other religious groups in genuine desire for dialogue, I think we could change the fabric of American Jewish life in incredibly positive ways.

Genuine I-Thou dialogue: what could be more American, and more Jewish, than that? What better way to celebrate our arrival, three hundred and fifty-one years ago, on these shores?

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