Multifaith Relations: Four Decades of an Evolving Field

How can encountering religious diversity help us grow spiritually? If we can let down our barriers of fear and mistrust, how might we be enriched and inspired by the insights of other traditions?

Watch the June 25, 2020 discussion of this piece:

Reconstructionists like to claim that “multifaith is in our DNA.” Indeed, our theological perspective makes room for, one might say even requires, an embrace of religious pluralism.[fn]Defined by Diana Eck as the “energetic engagement with diversity,” (retrieved 3/21/20)[/fn] 

That said, the story is not a simple one. The work of interreligious engagement is urgent, deeply meaningful and, in that overused but perfectly apt word, complicated.

Looking back, I see the field circling around two different sets of questions regarding religious diversity.

The first involves combating the negative potential of diversity — the way in which religious difference can be exploited to generate fear and hatred. As Jews, we have grappled with these questions as both the victimized and the privileged. Our role has shifted over the years and not in a straight chronological line. At times, we are asking how to enlist our allies in protecting our own communities from prejudice and hate. At other times, we are asking how, as individuals nourished by a tradition, we can take responsibility for the religious intolerance that our tradition has engendered. An emerging awareness of power dynamics, especially related to race and class, impacts the way we Jews stand up for others and also how we seek support for ourselves.

The other set of questions is more positive. How can encountering religious diversity help us to grow spiritually? If we can let down our barriers of fear and mistrust, how might we be enriched and inspired by the insights of other traditions and the models of faithful living found outside our borders? How can the experience of religious encounter help us develop as people of faith?

Those questions bring in their wake others. As the boundaries of our communities become more fluid, people are less likely to locate themselves in legacy traditions. Many claim multiple sources of identity. Given this trend, how will “interreligious” encounter change? Especially in a world of religious churn and flux, how will traditions like Judaism continue to flourish? Can interfaith encounters help people from different locations ground themselves more deeply, even as they open themselves more widely?

As a rabbi, an interfaith educator and an activist, I find these questions magnetic. After all these years, I am still seeking good answers.

While a student at RRC, I traveled to Germany with an interfaith group of scholars from Temple University to explore “Post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian Relations.” Last summer, 39 years later, I returned with 54 Muslim and Jewish women from the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. With those two very different journeys as book ends, I propose to chart the evolving field of multifaith engagement — the participants involved, the issues addressed, the emerging understandings and the looming challenges.

Germany, 1980

Our trip mirrored many of the conferences and events I participated in both before and after 1980. The players were Jews and Christians, clergy and scholars. The Christian professors from Temple who led our trip were representative of the field as I found it: white and male. My Christian mentors on that trip — Father Gerard Sloyan, Leonard Swidler and Paul van Buren — were giants in the effort to reconstruct Christian thought and life based on an ethical impulse to undo centuries of what Jules Isaacs calls the “teaching of contempt”[fn]Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1964.[/fn] that had set the stage for the Holocaust. They did their work with a deep commitment to theological integrity and human implications.

This blend of academics and real-life impact drew me to the field. When RRC began the “Religious Studies” program in the 1980s, we, like most Jews, were especially interested in Christianity. We wanted to equip our students to understand issues like the New Testament-based charges of deicide, the Protestant anti-Judaic teachings about “the law” and the use of Hebrew Bible verses by Christians engaged in conversionary efforts with Jews. We welcomed the post-Holocaust willingness on the part of some Christians to invite us to the interfaith table, eager as they were to redeem the most toxic elements of their own tradition. For our part, we were grateful to take our seats as partners in the Judeo-Christian conversation. We were aware, to a limited extent, that we were performing roles that benefited us both in different ways, as long as we abided by the rules of the discourse, explicit and implicit. For example, Jews and Christians colluded in “the said, the unsaid and the unsayable,” especially around the issue of Israel/Palestine.  

My trip to Germany in 1980, like those conferences, was primarily issue-oriented. There was one exception: Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. The lone participant on the trip who was a refugee from Europe, Reb Zalman, the godfather of the Jewish Renewal movement, had a larger vision of our mission. He wanted to share his spiritual practices, to observe Shabbat and Havdalah, to join in prayer. His ways were outside the mainstream of interfaith work at the time. We referred to our field then as “dialogue,” a word I use less often today, as it points to the verbal, above-the-neck focus of encounter.

As the ’90s waned, my own interests moved in different directions. Anti- Jewish hate did not seem to me to present the most pressing problem. After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that intuition was strengthened. I thought I could best honor the legacy of my Christian teachers by engaging in the emerging field of Muslim-Jewish relations. Jews talked entirely too much about the Holocaust. Or so I told myself.

I did not return to Germany until 2019. In the interim, much had changed.

Who is at the table?

In those early days, we sometimes asked: Who is not at the table? We would note that the more traditional wings of our faiths (evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews) were missing. We were ambivalent about addressing the issue, however, since the rules of engagement included a commitment to a liberal, pluralistic vision. Sometimes, multifaith encounters would include a colorfully garbed Hindu or Buddhist, often foreign born, all too often exoticized. During this period, some began to recognize the need for more women participants, and we women were invited to chair quite a few panels of men (“manels,” as they were later called).

We rarely discussed (to my memory) the kinds of absences that concern us today in the multifaith venues I frequent. These include race, class, gender diversity, sexual orientation, SBNR (spiritual but not religious), indigenous faiths, hybrid or complex religious identities. The issue of representation is at least being noticed, if not yet adequately addressed.

Sept. 11 served as a wakeup call to the field to embark on a steep learning curve. Like many of my interfaith educator peers, I had a file full of notes from the “Introduction to Islam” course I had taken as a student and virtually no real life understanding of what it meant to be a Muslim. For starters, I did not know Muslim peers. I still shamefacedly recount how I drove from Germantown to Cheltenham for decades without realizing I was passing through neighborhoods rich in African-American Muslim history and contemporary life. I retired the old Islam course at RRC and explored new ways to introduce students to the reality of Muslims in America. Through the support of the Henry Luce Foundation, I worked with Rabbi Or Rose at Hebrew College to organize retreats for young Muslim and Jewish leaders.

From Gown to Town: Many Kinds of Tables

In the meantime, a new world of interfaith was emerging beyond the academy and the seminary — a world springing up from the grassroots.

One of the glorious aspects of this field is precisely this multiplicity of venues and players, the way in which it spans both town and gown. In 2013, the American Academy of Religion established the Interfaith and Interreligious Study Group, precisely to acknowledge that something was going on in our country that transcended the concerns of the academic Religious Studies departments.

Today, the field of multifaith engagement is as varied as the sites in which we encounter one another across traditions. Those include: local interfaith centers, grassroots interfaith projects, congregation-based community organizing groups, clergy councils, social media and, lest we forget, our family dinner tables. A vivid example: For the last 17 years, I have helped to establish Philadelphia’s Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation, a project created entirely by lay volunteers.

The field moved beyond panels of experts. Now we were learning, as we often said, “If you know one Muslim you know … one Muslim.” And many Americans were making it their business to know more than one. Interfaith prophetic witness in the public sphere proliferated. Building on the work of Rabbis Heschel and Waskow, and many others, we took to the streets on a range issues from race to the environment to immigration. Professor Najeeba Syeed of Claremont Theological School writes and speaks extensively about the creative efforts of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Seekers and “Nones” to stand up for causes in ways that become, themselves, religious experiences.[fn]Najeeba Syeed and Heidi Hadsell, Critical Perspectives on Interreligious Education: Experiments in Empathy, Brill, 2020.[/fn]

From Head to Heart: From Agenda Swapping to Spiritual Adventure

In 2015, I traveled to Salt Lake City to speak at the Sixth Parliament of World Religions. Gathered there was a staggering diversity of individuals, of spiritualities, of groups and organizations who saw a reason to be in one place to learn from one another. The legacy traditions were there, but so were the seekers. The Parliament was not only a way to learn about other religions. Rather, it was itself an experience of connection to the holy — multifaith as the “spiritual adventure of our time.”

Rev. William Sloan Coffin warned against spirituality that was “a mile wide and an inch deep.” I worried that what was special in our traditions might dissolve into a New Age soup. I thought often of Reb Zalman and his “deep ecumenicism”[fn]A phrase he borrowed from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells, Penguin, 2000.[/fn]. Reb Zalman’s approach to interfaith, if not as capacious as this gathering, pushed the boundaries as far as any Jew in his time. He was the consummate “outsider insider,” a neo-Hasid who cultivated a close friendship with Thomas Merton and Pir Vilayat Khan, Reb Zalman had a vision for the encounter of multiple faiths: the opportunity to come to the table not to trade agendas nor argue theologies, but to open the treasure chests of our spiritual wisdom traditions and share with “semi-permeable boundaries.”  Much of what I saw would have made Reb Zalman smile.

Years before, Reb Zalman[fn]For an introduction to Reb Zalman’s approach, see Or N. Rose and Netanel Miles-Yupez (eds), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi: Essential Teachings, Orbis, 2020.[/fn] had planted the seed of what became an important feature of my own approach to multifaith work. He was interested in what he called “spiritual technologies,” the ways in which our traditions help us move from “the is to the ought.”⁵ Many people at the Parliament were in search of practices — intentional, often embodied behaviors like prayer, meditation, chanting, yoga, movement. Not just any practices, but ones that would help them to show up as the people they aspired to be.

Developments that have transformed multifaith work — American post-ethnicity[fn]David Hollinger, Posttethnic America:Beyond Multiculturalism, Basic Books, 1995[/fn], intermarriage, the rise of the “Nones” — have also called into question old verities about Jewish peoplehood and belonging. My students at RRC need and want to deepen their connection to Jewish living, even as the boundaries of the Jewish people and the very definition of Jewish peoplehood are in flux.

Years after graduating RRC, I became an active practitioner of Mussar, a traditional Jewish practice of character development. As my Jewish formation grew more solid, my interfaith work evolved. Sharing spiritual practices for the cultivation of character enhanced encounters across faith for me even as they further strengthened my grounding as a Jew. Convening multiple gatherings of religious leaders confirmed for me that I am not unique. We can sink deeper roots as we open wider hearts. How to do so skillfully? That, I believe, is a challenging growing edge of the field.

Waking Up to Privilege and Power

The outcome of any interfaith encounter depends a great deal on who initiates it. And that often has to do with who has access to resources. This emerging awareness is slowly penetrating the field of multifaith engagement. Mistakes are made, even with the best of intentions.

In 2016, I spent a week at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., confined to a cottage with a Christian woman and a Muslim woman, instructed by the Protestant organizers from the Cathedral to spend our time discussing our respective traditions. As we talked, it became clear that the question made most sense to me and to my Christian colleague, less to the Muslim.

I have made my own mistakes. When I created text-study sessions for lay women through the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, it became clear that many Jewish women were coming to the reading of sacred text with very different hermeneutical assumptions than their Muslim sisters. Where a Jewish participant might say “the story we tell is … ,” a Muslim woman would be more likely to say, “Allah taught us that … .” It took time to learn how to honor and affirm different starting points.

Today, those issues loom large in multifaith gatherings, especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine. The “conflict” or the “occupation” (depending on whose language one privileges) is not only an issue between Jews and Muslims. It also is one that causes internal fissures within each of our communities and often determines who is chosen to represent them. Ironically, one of the ways Jews and Muslims find connection with one another is strategizing about how to heal our respective intra-religious struggles. From those challenges, we have come to appreciate our spiritual practices of cultivating ethical qualities. In difficult conversations, whether across traditions or in our own groups, those virtues determine whether or not we thrive.

Germany, 2019

From the moment in 2013 when I was invited by the founding director Sheryl Olitsky to join the board, I knew the mission of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom called to me. In 2017, when I read Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century, I realized why. A historian of fascism, Snyder reports that people who lived through the thirties remember what it meant to them as Jews to be known by Christians as friends and neighbors. The Sisterhood has grown rapidly. From five chapters in 2014, we now count 170 chapters in North America, including 14 for teen girls.

Given the fraught nature of the issue, many multifaith venues, including the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, have tended to avoid Israel/Palestine altogether, with frequent nervous nods to the “Elephant in the Room.” At the Muslim-Jewish retreats with emerging leaders, a participant once posted the outline of an elephant on the wall and invited people to write inside what issues we were ignoring. Yes, race and class came up, but everyone agreed that the topic we were most avoiding was Israel/Palestine.

Having embraced the Sisterhood’s theory of social change — connecting Jewish and Muslim communities one relationship at a time — I wondered about our message on that issue. When I learned that the Sisterhood was planning a trip to Germany and Poland, I was wary. Would this be another program where people with more power in a group promote their own interests at the expense of others with less voice? But when I heard that many Muslim women had signed up, I decided to join them. I wanted to get to know my Muslims sisters better. And I wanted to understand why they had chosen this trip at this time.

I learned that some participated out of concern for the rise of anti-Jewish hate in America. They appreciated that their Jewish sisters had been there for them in addressing anti-Muslim hate, and they wanted to reciprocate. In recent years, most of the multifaith groups that I am part of have begun to deal with anti-Jewish hate as an important challenge. For example, the organization I helped to found in 2010 — “Shoulder to Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims, Upholding American Values” — is now exploring how to respond to threats to Jewish safety.

My old field of Jewish-Christian relations continues to this day at conferences and gatherings around the U.S. and in Europe. It is still a largely white, male enterprise, and the participants are aging. But In light of recent awareness of the persistence of anti-Jewish hatred, a new grappling with the toxic role of Christian hegemony is emerging in other venues as part of a larger conversation about colonialism, racism and ethno-nationalism.   

As we journeyed from Berlin to Auschwitz, we followed the reports of the separation of families at the southern border back home. We wanted to learn about the rise of fascism so that we could resist developments in our own country. Six months later, 50 sisters traveled to the U.S.-Mexican border to strengthen our commitment as an organization to protest policies that offend both our faith traditions.

Since the November 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, the need to create a culture of religious (and other kinds) of pluralism has taken on a new urgency. In a time when intolerance has moved from the periphery to the center, the stakes could not be higher. I feel fortunate to have been in learning and leading in this field, and I look forward to opportunities to continue the work.

Read responses to this essay from Celene Ibrahim, Ph.D and Jennifer Peace, Ph.D.

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