Me: Sarah, I need your help.
Sarah: Always happy to help you. What do you need?
Me: I have been asked to write a chapter for a book about mistakes made in interfaith work. Can you help me think about that theme? As a rabbi, have you had an experience of a mistake being made?
Sarah: I have! Remember the wonderful winter solstice parties we used to give ourselves every year in our monthly Jewish-Christian clergy group? How we looked forward to all the latkes and advent customs and poetry?
Me: Indeed! Those were precious times.
Sarah: Well, I recall a mistake that happened about a decade ago at our meeting in January, after one of those lovely evenings. Mary had sung a carol. I shared that there was a line in it that did not land well for me as a Jew. I don’t remember why now, something probably on the triumphalist side. It’s not important what it was. Mary had offered it as a song she loved; she did not ask us to sing along. But the song had been hard for me to hear, and I wanted to tell the group how it made me feel. Perhaps to open a conversation. We were all good friends. Then, a mistake was made.
Me: Who made it?
Me: Oh, my! I don’t remember this at all! What did I do?
Sarah: You jumped in right after I spoke. You said, “That line was no big deal.” I don’t remember what you said next. Something about why it didn’t matter, that it did not really mean what I thought it meant, and that the song was just fine with you. I do remember how I felt. Unsupported. What happened to the virtue of solidarity? Of Jews sticking together, especially when the non-Jews are listening. After you spoke, everyone seemed happy to let it drop. I haven’t thought about that evening in years. But you are looking for a misstep. There you have it!”
Me: Hmm … I need to think about this.
So think about it, I did! First, I wondered what was going on for me. Perhaps, the line had not struck me as problematic, so I opened my mouth to “speak my truth” without stopping to consider my friend Sarah and how she might hear my words. Or maybe I had seen what Sarah saw, but my attention and compassion were trained on Mary, who had shared her beloved carol with “the best of intentions.” Perhaps I was trying to take care of Mary’s feelings. I am typically conflict adverse. It is not surprising that I took on the role of the great “smoother-outer.” (Old habits die hard.) Or maybe, as a longtime veteran of the interfaith world, I was simply showing my less experienced Jewish friends how to handle little things like this. I can imagine I was eager to display my credentials as an evolved interfaith interlocutor. Maybe I even thought that I was doing Sarah and the other Jews a favor.
While I’m always interested in knowing what goes on in my own “endlessly fascinating” head, the questions I really needed to ask were different. Was this a misstep at all? And if so, what kind of misstep was it? Thinking about the goals and norms of multifaith conversation, what was my mistake and how could that evening have unfolded differently?
First, I concluded that my mistake, while not a grievous one, was indeed a mistake. My friend felt I had let her down. As she saw it, a “member of the tribe” had failed to show up in solidarity with her sister Jew. If I had said anything at all to non-Jews in the room, I should have taken her “side.” As a matter of Jewish solidarity, it occurred to me that my choice was unaligned with other choices I make on a regular basis. As a participant in interfaith encounters, I always request the most compatible to kosher options (though it was not my personal practice). I want to make sure that my fellow Jews who had the most significant needs would get them met. Similarly, as a matter of solidarity, I do not attend certain interfaith events on Shabbat, even though the attendance would fit with my own Shabbat observance.
When I move from the realm of ritual to that of substantive issues, things get more nuanced. In conversations in multifaith settings about contested issues within our own community, solidarity is more complicated. Diversity within our Jewish communities is a given. The old joke “two Jews, three opinions” continues to resonate as truth — a truth in which we take pride. Except when we do not. When a topic becomes an issue between the Jews and non-Jews in the room, I can recall many interfaith moments when the Jews in the group presented a united front even when I knew that their views are actually quite diverse. We love to reference the Talmud, where the rabbis disagree about everything, although we rarely point out that these are not disputes intended for non-Jews’ ears. I imagine that some Jews would praise our keeping our most divisive conversations to ourselves as solidarity and condemn the breach of a presumed consensus as disloyalty.
Solidarity is a capacious concept. It could mean solidarity with the Jews in the room, or at least the Jew who has just spoken up. But it also might mean solidarity with other Jews who are not present and whose positions are minority ones. Or non-Jews whose interests have not been served well by the comment a Jew just made. I recall times when I have let a minority Jewish position go unspoken or not spoken up for those others who have no voice. In those moments, I feel a twinge of survivor guilt, knowing that I am included here because I can clam up about some of these other solidarities that I hold dear. Hannah Arendt, in 1942, wrote from a different perspective on solidarity than the ethnic/national one arising at that time. While not advocating “collective suicide” for the Jewish people, she wrote about restoring “the solidarity of the human race.” (1)
Seeing one’s responsibility as greater than group solidarity puts the conversation in a different light. In places where I do not know or trust the “good intentions” of others, solidarity with a majority Jewish opinion can be a good choice. In other cases, it may be a narrow and particularistic understanding of what loyalty entails. Is solidarity really the correct frame?
Viewing that miniature story through the lens of Mussar (a Jewish spiritual discipline of character cultivation), I saw my misstep from many angles. First, a bit of textual excavation. In the Torah, we read:
Ki tireh hamor sonacha rovetz takhat masa’o, vekhadalta me’azov lo, azov ta’azov imo.
“If you see an ass, i.e., a donkey, that belongs to someone who hates you, collapsed under the weight of its load, and you are inclined not to help, you must nonetheless help your enemy get his sorry ass off the floor.” (2) (Exodus 23:5)
The Mishnah picks up on this, and in a long list of virtuous acts includes, “Who shares in the bearing of a burden with his colleague?” (Avot 6:6).
The idea enters the Mussar classic Mesillat Yesharim this way: “A man should strive to be of as much help as possible to those who are weighted down with some burden.” And in the next generation, Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Ziv wrote about “bearing a burden with one’s neighbor” as the equivalent of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. (3)
Which brings us to my Mussar teacher, Rabbi Ira Stone, who centered his Mussar method, designed to help contemporary Jews grow their souls to live responsible lives, on the idea of “bearing the burden of the other.”
So how did I do that evening? First, I had failed to “bear the burden of the other” — my closest other in the room, my friend Sarah. She had taken a risk, and I left her hanging. I did not notice her burden; or, noticing it, did not find a way to carry it with her. As for Mary, one might say I viewed her burden superficially. Perhaps better than my protecting her from a rueful moment, Mary would have rather learned what Sarah (and perhaps others in our group) heard in that song. By shutting down that conversation, I had failed to bear Mary’s burden as well.
We are going to make mistakes with one another, and we will forgive each other. That is how we will all grow.
Failing two others in one hasty utterance, I had certainly failed my own Mussar’s aspirations of careful speech with attention to the other. Finally, perhaps the “other” in the room with a burden was the group itself. The need of the group is to have the richest and best conversation possible. Because I spoke up the way I did, the group missed out on a conversation we might have had.
Perhaps, too, things would have gone better if a different container had been created in which this diversity could be aired. Perhaps the question could be phrased as one of character: What is “right speech” regarding intrafaith diversity in multifaith conversation? We were a self-led group, and no one stepped up. Which brings us to consider the role of a leader as creator of contexts for such encounters.
When I co-taught religious leadership for a multifaith world with Rev. Katie Day at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Lutheran Theological Seminary (now United Lutheran Seminary), we noticed that our students did not hesitate to let each other know that there existed a spectrum of positions among us on fraught topics, such as officiating at interfaith weddings or Israel/Palestine. Yet, speaking up in disagreement with another Jew — let alone all the other Jews in a room — did not come easily to the Jewish students in multifaith settings. As in my case, when they did, it sometimes happened clumsily; a painful moment ensued, and we hastily moved on.
In that course, we utilized the pedagogical tool of the fishbowl, setting up a “safe space” — or better, issuing an invitation to be brave. Christians sat in the outer circle to listen as Jews, sitting in the inner circle, conversed among themselves. Then we switched positions and roles. This allowed us to normalize a spectrum of views, indeed, to request an airing of that diversity rather than to wait for one student to decide to take on a colleague. Structural interventions like the fishbowl make it easier for us to argue among ourselves like talmudic rabbis, framing differences within a subgroup as something expected and welcomed. We allow space for those disagreements in solidarity with the whole group’s goal of learning more about one another.
Here is my takeaway from my friend Sarah’s honesty. Even in a long-standing group like ours, where good will abounds, solidarity more widely conceived is not easy. Managing intrafaith diversity well, as individuals and as leaders, is one way of bearing the burden of the group itself. One needs to deeply trust a group to want to make it a priority.
If I had it to do over again, I would have said, “That carol landed differently for me, and I would love to tell you all about it, but first let’s hear more from Sarah. Maybe the rest of you might also want to share.” Do I do that regularly? No. But I can try. And if I were the facilitator, I would have pointed out what a lovely moment this was. “Nancy just said something that was different than what Sarah said. Thank you, Sarah. Thank you, Nancy. What a beautiful opportunity for us all to learn. Let us begin … ” Sometimes, these would be the right moves; other times, not at all. In the end, the Mishnah gives us an oft-quoted but hazy piece of guidance. “An argument for the sake of heaven will endure; but a debate not for the sake of heaven will not endure.”(4)
So, our ultimate “other” to whom we owe our solidarity is none other than “heaven” or the Divine. What that means in any given situation is a matter of discernment. That is why multifaith work, when done with care, is so challenging.
Me: I thought about what you said. I want to say, quite simply: I was wrong. No excuses, no explanations, no long stories. I made a mistake.
Sarah: It really was not a huge deal at all. If I had wanted to pursue things, I could have.
Me: I know. That is why I am grateful to you for remembering and giving me this opportunity to think about it. I am sure I have made other, bigger errors. Some I remember. Some I do not even know, especially if they were made across differences of race, gender, age. It’s so hard to admonish each other, even when there are no power differentials!
Sarah: I know. That is why I am grateful for our tradition of teshuvah — of turning, repentance, forgiveness. They say that before God created the world, God first created seven things: The Torah, Gehinnom, the Garden of Eden, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, Teshuva and the Name of the Messiah (Pirkei de R. Eliezer 3). It seems to me that when we meet one another in relationship, we meet across worlds, even if just the separate worlds of two close friends. Yet, before there was even any world at all, God saw fit to create the possibility of repentance. God knew we were going to make mistakes. It’s built into the structure of the world. Breaking and repairing.
Me: I like that idea. I think we need to hold on to it when we do the work of multifaith encounter. Set that idea right at the start of our encounters, like God placed it at the beginning of the world. We are going to make mistakes with one another, and we will forgive each other. That is how we will all grow.
- Geoffrey D. Klausen, Modern Musar: Contested Virtues in Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2022), p. 293.
- Translation by Irwin Keller, https://www.irwinkeller.com/itzikswell/2009/02/parashat-mishpatim-saving-your-enemys.html.
- Moses Hayyim Luzzato, Mesillat Yesharim: The Path of the Upright, trans. Mordecai M. Kaplan, introduction and commentary by Ira F. Stone (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2010), p. 197.
- Pirke Avot 5:17.
This essay first appeared in With the Best of Intentions: Interreligious Missteps and Mistakes, edited by Lucinda Mosher, Elinor J. Pierce and Or N. Rose, Orbis 2023.