Honoring Nancy Fuchs Kreimer for her signal and courageous contributions to the field of multifaith studies.
This essay is a response to “Multifaith Relations: Four Decades of an Evolving Field” by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, Ph.D.
Interreligious studies has three defining qualities[fn]Eboo Patel, Jennifer Howe Peace, and Noah J. Silverman, eds., Interreligious/Interfaith Studies: Defining a New Field (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), p. xii[/fn]: It insists on the dynamic link between theory and practices; it emphasizes scholarship that is accountable to community; and it privileges the relational on multiple levels — from how the object of study is defined, to how research is conducted, to how the goals of the field are articulated. For example, to say interreligious studies is concerned with relational goals means that it goes beyond analyzing the state of religious relations to emphasizing the skills, knowledge and dispositions that foster positive interpersonal relations for the sake of strengthening our civic fabric.
Interreligious studies explicitly leaves room for the fact that something is at stake in this work. It is a field that acknowledges that scholarship has implications in the wider world and a responsibility to the wider world. We are implicated members of the communities we study. These relationships are tangled, changing and complicated. In many ways, Nancy embodies the hallmarks of this field that she has helped to build over the last four decades through her teaching, writing, speaking, preaching, activism and organizing work.
I want to focus on three particular contributions that Nancy’s work highlights that are deeply related to the way I engage in and understand interfaith work: her emphasis on personal stories; her alignment with personal values; and her commitment to diverse, justice-oriented, compassionate community-building.
Multifaith Relations: Four Decades of an Evolving Field is bookended by two personal stories — the first is set in Germany in 1980 on a trip with Christian and Jewish clergy and scholars. The second story is about a trip to Germany in 2019 with a group of Jewish and Muslim women, organized by the group Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Like the teachers who guided her trip in 1980, Nancy does her work “with a deep commitment to theological integrity and human implications.” This is a quality that stood out to me when I first had the privilege of working with Nancy when she contributed to a collection I co-edited. Nancy understands that the richness and texture of our unique experiences can be powerfully carried and communicated through stories — both our personal stories and the larger narratives to which we are connected. Nancy is generous in sharing her own stories, and has a genuine curiosity and openness to hearing the stories of others. It is a measure of her respect for others that she is willing to be transformed by stories that touch her.
The story Nancy contributed to My Neighbor’s Faith, like the story she opens with in her essay, is set in 1980 on the same trip to Germany. In this story, “Trouble Praying,” Nancy describes talking to her young German host, a fellow student who confesses his envy. “I envy you because it is easier for you to pray.” As a German, carrying the weight of what his parents and grandparents did or did not do during the war, he continues, “It is hard for us to talk to God. We feel a little embarrassed.”[fn]Jennifer Howe Peace, Or N. Rose, and Gregory Mobley, eds., My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation (New York: Orbis Books, 2012), p. 46.[/fn] His willingness to take responsibility as a German and a Christian for the sins of his parents and grandparents shifts Nancy’s perspective. His confession moves Nancy to decide that the most important work she can do is to “take responsibility for the group from which I derive my identity, the group whose actions will lead my children to be proud or embarrassed before God.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] This leads her to change her dissertation topic:
Rather than looking at problematic Christian texts, I would study problematic Jewish writings. I would investigate the ways in which my own tradition misunderstands others rather than point a finger at the others for misunderstanding us.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
The courage to sit with what is difficult and the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own community, marks Nancy’s work and her career as a scholar, educator and activist. The integrity and clarity this gives to her work makes her a role model to me.
A second contribution to the field and to my own understanding of interfaith work is Nancy’s emphasis in all her work on values, and the alignment of head and heart. This was best illustrated for me in a multi-year initiative that Nancy designed and led focused on understanding character formation across various religious traditions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Humanist). “Cultivating Character” was never purely an intellectual exercise. Nancy invited a group of scholars, educators and religious practitioners to a beautiful retreat setting and asked us to start by drawing on our own beliefs and practices. She designed sessions for us to teach each other our sacred practices. It was relational, exploratory and tender. We began in year one with a small group of women and expanded from there, increasing the diversity and range of participants each year. The group grew organically with an emphasis on relationships. Nancy’s own interest in Mussar and a vision she attributes to Reb Zalman in her essay “to open the treasure chests of our spiritual wisdom traditions and share with ‘semi-permeable boundaries,’” was on full display. We were invited to share what we loved and valued in our traditions — the “spiritual technologies” that we each rely on. It was a transformative series of gatherings for me.
Initially, I was hesitant about sharing my own spiritual practices and blending the academic and personal dimensions of my faith and interfaith commitments. Part of this came from a concern Nancy cites about spirituality that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Part of my hesitation was an awareness of a history of appropriating religious practices that are decontextualized and then used by others with no real connection to the tradition or to a community of practice. But what Nancy designed was different. It was a new model for interreligious engagement. She invited people who wear many hats (educators, scholars, practitioners, activists) to bring their full selves to the retreat. She invited committed practitioners with the humility, generosity and depth to share hard-won insights that had emerged out of years of practice in their very particular traditions. Listening to one participant, an African-American Muslim in his 70’s, I realized I could learn, appreciate and be inspired by the Muslim practice of praying five times a day, but I could never appropriate or imitate the kind of character that was forged in this particular man through his many years of committed daily practice. I experienced a sense of “holy envy” many times during these retreats.[fn]Christian theologian Krister Stendahl coined the phrase “holy envy” as an experience of recognizing something beautiful or sacred in someone else’s religious practice that you admire and that may not present in the same way in your own tradition.[/fn] My fellow participants both re-inspired my own religious practices and reminded me of dormant modalities available in my tradition that I may have overlooked. Nancy’s generosity, care, organization and intellectual curiosity made the multi-year Cultivating Character program a professional highlight for me. Beyond this, it provides an innovative model for powerful interreligious engagement that integrates the personal and professional.
Finally, Nancy’s commitment to diverse, justice-oriented, compassionate community has been visible throughout her career. She shows up for the challenging, complex and essential work of building community across lines of difference. Through her writing and teaching, her work with Shoulder to Shoulder[fn]A national coalition-based campaign of religious denominations, faith-based organizations and communities that are committed to ending discrimination and violence against Muslims in the United States by equipping, connecting and mobilizing faith leaders to effectively take action. https://www.shouldertoshouldercampaign.org/resources[/fn] and Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom[fn]The women of Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom stand for justice when anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hate targets one of our communities (https://sosspeace.org/who-we-are/).[/fn], she builds connection and focuses on repairing the breaches wherever she sees damaged relations. As she notes in her essay, she is attentive to power dynamics and has been an important advocate for widening the interfaith table, amplifying voices that are not always heard and allowing space for the elephants in the room to be addressed. Nancy does not shy away from what is messy, challenging or hard to talk about. She notes that, “Being part of a community means being ready to argue with it, to criticize it, to ask it to live up to its best self.”[fn]Peace et al., My Neighbor’s Faith, 46.[/fn] At the same time, she also creates the conditions for people to share what is best, beautiful or spiritually profound in their traditions. This is reflected for me in the two sets of questions regarding religious diversity that Nancy outlines at the beginning of her essay: those that involve combating the ways in which “religious difference can be exploited to generate fear and hatred,” and those that invite us to ask, “How can encountering religious diversity help us to grow spiritually?” Holding these two sets of questions together is a powerful way to understand the contours of the field she has helped to shape.
I appreciate Nancy as a scholar and educator who does her work as if something is at stake. Because of course, something is at stake. In many ways, she is tackling life-and-death issues in her work to educate about and expose anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim bias. I think of a passage from Deuteronomy that has always had particular resonance for me: “… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live … ” (Deut. 30:19). I see Nancy as someone who consistently chooses life. Her career, impacted powerfully by an encounter in 1980, has resulted in a body of work and a legacy of relationships that offer witness to what it means to be a scholar, an activist, an educator and a Jew who has not only shaped the field of multifaith relations, but who has given her children and grandchildren the gift of being able to always pray without embarrassment.