This week's portion: eternal light

Interfaith work and the godblogosphere

Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi David Zaslow speak about Jewish-Christian interfaith work. "The time seems to have arrived when Christians and Jews are beginning to have a new understanding of each other," he said. "We're discarding prejudice and beginning to understand what the Holy One may have wanted us to understand all along. If not now, when?" His remarks made an impact on me. I took a lot of notes. I promised myself to look into his work once I got home again.

Of course, I lost track of that resolve. Other things rose up to take precedence, as they do. But last week when I was at Elat Chayyim, I picked up a slim pamphlet in the bookstore -- Writings from the Heart of Jewish Renewal / K'tavim she'ba'Lev -- and lo and behold, the final essay in the chapbook is by Rabbi Zaslow, and matches neatly what he spoke about. (It's an excerpt from a forthcoming book, which has the working title Roots and Branches.)

One of the first things that strikes me is the passage about one-upsmanship:

Do we need to criticize each other's faith in order to explain or exalt our own faith? I hope not. Do we need to "spin" descriptions of our own beliefs when comparing them to each others' beliefs? I hope not. The word of God in each of our great religions needs no interpretive spin. What we need are more passionate, joy-filled discussions and dialogues with an underlying celebration of what we have in common.

It's tough to take in somebody else's beliefs without feeling some twinges of defensiveness. But we need to learn to listen without judgement; to speak for ourselves, and to allow others to speak for themselves too (instead of speaking for them.) This is a prerequisite for dialogue, easily as true online as it is off.

I also think it's as true within my own religious tradition as it is in interfaith or ecumenical work. How would I, as a Reform / Renewal Jew, characterize the beliefs and practices of Orthodoxy? How would my Orthodox cousins characterize my beliefs and practices? How much better it is for each of us to speak about where we are, than for either of us to try to define the other from a distance! The first step in this kind of work is allowing the other party to have a voice, which requires willingness to hear what the other party says -- even if it contradicts our previously-held assumptions.

Rabbi Zaslow has interesting things to say about Jesus:

To a Jew, Jesus can at most be a brother; a fellow Jew at the highest spiritual level who was martyred like millions of other Jews; a rebbe of a group of hasidim (pious devotees) who wanted to see the prophetic dream of peace and justice fulfilled in this world; a healer and miracle worker in the lineage of Elijah and Elisha before him; a mystic like the Ba'al Shem Tov after him; an incredible maggid (preacher and evangelist) in the tradition of the Pharisees. He was a good son, a good Jew, and what in Judaism we call "a real mensch," someone who lived up to his total human potential.

And yet to a Christian the above can never, and should never be enough.

(I seem to remember reading something similar to that last point in CS Lewis' Mere Christianity many years ago -- that simply calling Jesus a great guy is altogether inadequate, from Lewis' Christian perspective -- though I can't seem to find it now in the e-text to which I just linked. Folks who know that book better than I, can you find the quotation in question?)

Anyway, what interests me here is Rabbi Zaslow's point that Christians relate not to the historical Jesus but rather the theological Jesus, and that the differences between how "we" understand him and how "they" understand him shouldn't be handwaved away. Nor, he argues, should they be reconciled. One needn't trump the other, in either direction. Instead, what would happen if we allowed them to coexist -- if we not only accepted, but even embraced the mystery inherent in these varying religious views? "A healthy ecosystem is one where there is eco-diversity," he notes. Just so, Judaism needs the diversity of our movements, and the broader world needs the diversity of various religious (and non-religious) teachings, in order to be healthy and whole.

I'm glad I happened to pick this up now, as I consider what I can contribute to the Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online panel at South by Southwest. Though Rabbi Zaslow isn't himself a blogger, what he's saying feels very relevant to me here, since one of the things that interests me most about the godblogosphere is the way blogging invites ecumenical and interfaith encounters. How do the online spaces we create offer opportunities for us to meet one another theologically, and what can we learn from peering through these windows into each others' religious lives? What might arise when we open ourselves to the possibilities of each others' truths? How can we build bridges in a way that helps us communicate without diminishing the integrity of where we're each coming from?

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