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Using the Talmud as a Model for Interfaith Dialogue

A page of the Talmud

by David Meyer
from Ha’aretz

BRUSSELS – A few years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks used an interesting metaphor to describe the interfaith reality of Europe’s pluralistic society. Living with multiculturalism, he argued, we must ask ourselves whether we intend to be together in the same shared house, or whether we are just guests in the same hotel.

The difference between the two images is striking. If we are indeed sharing a common home, even building it together, we need a common set of goals and frank give-and-take, lest our shared residence never get off the ground. Alternatively, if we are just guests who will pass one another occasionally in a hotel lobby, it will suffice if we can converse politely when we happen to meet.

As a European rabbi, I have made my choice. I am building the house. And the current multicultural nature of our society makes me want to find partners of other faiths with whom to share the effort.

But what sort of communal home are we aiming for? We each have identities and differences that we are just not willing to give up. So even though our common European house should indeed have solid foundations and a pleasant ground floor room for all to meet – it’s equally important that we have our own individual rooms one floor up, with doors we can safely leave unlocked. The challenge, then, is double: setting the foundations right so that we can customize our own rooms without endangering the building’s stability, and finding a way to share this vision in an exciting way with a wider audience.

Click here to read the full article

An Interview with Rabbi Or Rose

Rabbi Or Rose

Rabbi Or Rose

Recently, we spoke with Rabbi Rose on new innovations in interfaith education within the seminary context, the future of the interreligious movement and what it means to live on the “growing edge” of life.

CPWR:  We are here today with Rabbi Or Rose, who we are grateful to for sharing some of his time while he is in Chicago.  Rabbi Or Rose assisted in developing the Jewish programming for the 2009 Parliament.  He is the Associate Dean and Director of Informal Education at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew School.  Or is also a writer and social activist and has recently co-edited a book entitled, Righteous Indignation, A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights Publishing).  His next book, also a co-edited volume, is Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections (Jewish Lights, Fall 2010).

CPWR:In your work as an interfaith activist you have helped to launch a number of innovative programs.  How did you become involved with this movement?
OR: My involvement with the interfaith movement began with my family. I am blessed to come from a family in which both my mother and father were deeply engaged with interfaith efforts as far back as I can remember.  Among the many things I value about my parents was their ability to communicate to my siblings and me a great love for Judaism and an openness to learning from people from different religious backgrounds.  My brothers, sister, and I all went to Jewish day schools and summer camps and took many trips to Israel. The rhythms of the Jewish calendar guided our family life.  At the same time, my parents were in regular conversation with spiritual seekers from other traditions.  In fact, one of the most vivid memories I have from my childhood is celebrating Passover—the great Jewish festival of liberation—with my family and an eclectic group of Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Sufi, and Humanist guests.

CPWR: Please share with us a teaching from your religious tradition that helps guide your work as an interfaith leader?
OR: There is a famous story in the Talmud about two heroes of early Rabbinic culture, Hillel and Shammai. The legend goes that these great sages were involved in an intense debate about a particular legal issue for three years—going back and forth, yes and no, discussing every imaginable answer. In a dramatic moment in the tale, a divine voice breaks through and states, “These and these are the words of the living God.”  Which is to say, God’s truth is greater than anything we can conceive of or articulate.  No one person or community possesses absolute truth.  It is a wonderful teaching about the need for a plurality of voices in the human search for truth and meaning, and the need for humility in this search.

The story continues and takes another interesting turn. The ancient rabbis ask, “But if both are words of the living God, why is it that the law follows Hillel?”  The answer is that Hillel was kind, modest, and careful to state the position of his opponent before stating his own position. This is a very powerful example of how to engage in serious and respectful dialogue.  Remember, these rabbis debated for three years, each arguing passionately for his position.  Hillel teaches us how to do so humanely.

While this story takes place within an exclusively Jewish context, I believe that it can also serve as a model for interaction across religious traditions.  We must learn how to engage in honest conversation, how to agree and disagree, and how to work together for the common good.

CPWR: In one of your presentations at the Parliament, you used an intriguing phrase to describe your approach to Judaism.  You spoke about the need to live on “the growing edge” of your tradition?
OR: Yes.  This is a phrase from my beloved teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.  Reb Zalman (as he is affectionately called) distinguishes between the “cutting edge” and the “growing edge.”  “I am not interested in the cutting edge,” he says, “because we don’t want to cut ourselves off from all that is beautiful and wise from the past. Like a tree, we need to be firmly rooted in the ground, but our branches must extend forth and touch the world around us.”  Another great modern Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way: “We must be both inheritors and innovators.”  Of course, living this teaching requires constant care and refinement, knowing when to remain continuous with existing traditions and when to change.

CPWR: How do understand the significance of this teaching for your interfaith work?
OR: I feel called to participate in interfaith dialogue and action as part of the great human project of tikkun olam, of healing our broken world.  This involves humbly sharing with others the wisdom of my religious tradition and learning from other religious and secular traditions.  I view my interfaith work as a way of walking in Hillel’s footsteps.

CPWR: Speaking of tikkun olam, I want to thank you for your role in hosting the national CIRCLE interfaith conference last spring.  It was a very meaningful gathering for me because of the depth of the dialogue and because of the opportunity to be shoulder-to-shoulder with several luminaries of the interreligious movement.  Please share with us your experience of the conference.
OR: I have the great pleasure of teaching at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, one of the few trans-denominational Jewish seminaries in the country. We are also located next to Andover Newton Theological School. The fact of our proximity has allowed us to explore a wide range of interfaith educational initiatives, including joint academic courses, holiday gatherings, and service learning programs.  We are consciously seeking to create a holistic model so that members of our communities can meet and learn from one another in different contexts.

One manifestation of this wonderful partnership was the national conference we held in April 2010.  In collaboration with the Boston Theological Institute, we brought together approximately 100 scholars, educators, activists and students involved in North American seminary education to explore the question of how best to educate future religious leaders for service in a multi-religious world.  What do our graduates need to know about interfaith dialogue and action to lead their communities effectively in the twenty-first century?  As you said, it was a joy to welcome this amazing group of veteran and young leaders to our campus.  It was both a powerful interfaith and intergenerational experience.  I was very impressed with the willingness of the participants to openly share their best practices and their challenges.  There was very little posturing and a lot of honest conversation.

CPWR: To date, much of your work at Hebrew College has been focused on Jewish–Christian dialogue and action.  Please share some of the blessings and challenges of this arrangement.
OR: The blessing, of course, is that with Andover Newton as our neighbor we have opportunities for rich and sustained conversation and action.  We can study together, eat together, rally together, and play together because of our proximity and because we have cultivated this relationship carefully.  But in such situations, one has to be careful not to inadvertently cultivate a new triumphalist sensibility.  We have to be careful not to create yet another exclusivist situation in which Jews and Christians are in and others are out.  This is why we are in active conversation with other organizations and institutions about the possibility of creating new partnerships.

CPWR: Given your experience with Andover Newton, do you think the presence of the religious “other” is necessary for a well-rounded seminary experience?
OR: I think it is important for several reasons: When seminarians engage across religious lines, they have the opportunity to share their beliefs, values, and practices with people outside of their usual circles of conversation.  This requires that they reflect carefully on their religious commitments and articulate them with clarity.  At the same time, students have the opportunity to learn about the spiritual journeys of their peers and about some of the riches of other spiritual traditions.  If these encounters are successful, students can explore their similarities and differences, learn how to agree and to disagree, and how to work together on issues of common concern.

CPWR: Interestingly, at one of the sessions at the national CIRCLE conference, a colleague spoke about the fact that it is often easier for your students to discuss what they have in common than it is to talk about their differences.  Do you agree?  If so, why do you think this is the case?
OR: I agree with that observation.  I think it is often more difficult for our students (and faculty) to articulate their differences because we are still so wounded by the legacy of past conflicts between Christians and Jews.  So we want to be careful to treat each other gently and respectfully.  But we also need to help each other say, “This is why I disagree.”  The question is whether we can then live into deeper relationship, knowing that we’re going to continue to disagree about some issues of real consequence.  If we can stay the course, we actually have the opportunity to experience each other’s humanity more fully.

CPWR: You have been involved in a number of different interfaith educational endeavors.  Recently, you were at the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne, and in addition to leading an observance and speaking, you helped to coordinate the program Educating Religious Leaders for a Multi-Religious World. Can you speak to us a little bit about this experience of bringing together seminary students and faculty from across the United States for this unique experience?
OR: It was a joy. I had the privilege of working with a number of very talented people in organizing the program. I worked most closely with Paul Knitter of Union Theological Seminary and Ellen Ott Marshall of Emory University.  Each participating school agreed to offer an interfaith course in advance of the Parliament based on the expertise of the faculty and the priorities of the institutions.  But we also created a set of common readings and questions for faculty and students to think about in advance of our meeting in Australia.  We were all invested in a common process before we arrived in Melbourne.

The sessions themselves were wonderful because they were dynamic.  Each meeting opened with a panel discussion in which students shared their responses to the questions we had posed in advance of the Parliament.  We then broke into small groups to continue the conversation.  It was exciting to step back at various moments and see a hundred or so seminarians and faculty from different religions and geographical locations engage in sacred discussion.  The buzz created by all of these conversations made for beautiful music.

And then, of course, what was so special about having this experience take place within the context of the Parliament was that we would leave our conference room, spill out into the halls, and join the thousands of other people that were there because they too were committed to building the interfaith movement.

CPWR: I read a heartwarming blog entry you wrote for the Huffington Post about an interaction you had with an American Sikh leader.  I’m wondering if you have any other personal stories that you might share with us?
OR: One story that I want to share is about the ritual that I led with my Hebrew College students on Shabbat morning.  As it happened, most of the people who attended were actually not Jewish. And among the participants was a young woman in her early twenties from Iraq.  Following the service, she introduced herself to me and we spoke for several minutes about the similarities and differences in our prayer rites.  She also explained that this was the first time that she had ever met a rabbi.  Before leaving the prayer space she asked if it would it be possible to take a picture together after Shabbat?  Touched by her request and her sensitivity to traditional Sabbath practices, I immediately said yes.  She then added, “I want you to understand that this is not just a picture for my scrapbook, I need to document this for my family and friends at home, otherwise I don’t know if they’ll believe that I had such a positive experience this morning given all that separates our communities—Jewish and Muslim, American and Iraqi.”  Needless to say, it was a very powerful moment.

CPWR: Looking to the future, what advances do you hope to see in the next decade in the interreligious movement, both in the United States and internationally?
OR: One basic hope that I have is that interreligious cooperation becomes more of a civic norm in this country and elsewhere around the world.  We need to cultivate a stronger ethos of religious pluralism if we are to ever overcome the religious intolerance, bigotry, and violence that continue to plague humanity.  The current controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” has demonstrated yet again just how much work we have to do to repair relations between religious groups and the need for interfaith education.

Among the many issues that we need to work on across religious lines is the health of our shared planet.  The environmental crisis may be the most urgent issue facing humanity, and religious communities have to play a positive role in the healing process.  We have to marshal the best of our spiritual and ethical teachings to address the great ecological challenges of our day and the accompanying political, economic, and social issues.

CPWR: Are there any other areas of social justice that you think are particularly important for interfaith activists to engage?
OR: Yes, there is a long list: poverty, malnutrition, HIV-AIDS, women’s rights, etc.  However, in order to address these issues effectively in interfaith contexts, we need to develop a worldview in which we can hold the tension of our similarities and differences and find creative ways to care for one another and for the planet as a whole?  This takes us back to the statement from Reb Zalman about living on the “growing edge.”  What does it mean to work on the growing edge of the interfaith movement?  I think it involves an embrace of religious pluralism, of the interconnection of all of life, and a shared sense of responsibility for the earth.

CPWR: Is there anything else you would like to share?
OR: I feel blessed to be a part of the interfaith movement at this moment in time because there are tremendous opportunities for cooperative work domestically and internationally.  I also want to thank all of the brave women and men who have come before us as interfaith activists, scholars, and sages.  It is my prayer that we worthy heirs to their legacy in our roles as both “inheritors and innovators.”

CPWR: As an interreligious activist and educator in your own right, we thank you for sharing your wisdom with us. And thank you for your time.
OR: Thank you.