The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
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Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, June 8, 2012

Preaching Past the Choir -

This week I had the privilege of participating in an interfaith symposium here in Aspen, at the St. Regis.  The theme of the conference was "Responsibility of World Religions in the Age of Genocide." I spoke on a panel on "Interfaith Dialogue: What Should it Look Like?" Below are my remarks, reconstructed from notes to the best of my ability.

Rabbi David Segal, Aspen Jewish Congregation

Panel: Interfaith Dialogue - What Should it Look Like?
St. Regis, Aspen, CO
June 6, 2012


Speaking on the last panel in this symposium, I'm reminded of literary critic Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence. He suggests that poets are always in a state of anxiety in relation to those who came before them, caught between trying to break from them in originality on the one hand, and inevitably being indebted to them on the other. I’m not anxious, but rather I’m at peace with the fact that just about everything I’m about to say is in some way derivative of what other presenters have said. So perhaps we can reframe that problem by saying: to the extent that I’m original, hooray; and to the extent that I’m derivative, you're welcome -- for summarizing the symposium highlights... 

I'm dividing my remarks in three categories. First, the limits of interfaith dialogue. Second, as a counterpoint to that, the value of dialogue. And third, what dialogue should look like.

1. Limits of Dialogue

First under the limits of dialogue, I identify what I'll call the problem of particularism. It's been well analyzed by others this week, but I'll offer another perspective.  First, a story by the comedian Emo Phillips:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you christian or buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said,"Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?" He said, "Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?" He said,"Reformed Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off the bridge.
The story doesn't need much interpretation. It's very difficult to cultivate an ethos of being “committed to my truth but open to yours.” Rev. Robert de Wetter said it well at our opening panel: I am passionate about my faith, but emphatically not against the other.

But somehow we humans have a tendency not only to be loyal to our clique, but to further subdivide that group into smaller loyalty circles. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at UVA, recently published The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics. He points out that it is good to be loyal to a group, unless that group is too small and that loyalty too absolute, in which case the common good suffers.

Related to this is the problem of evangelism. Case in point, a Christian high school friend told me he was very worried I was going to hell. This came from a deep place of religious conviction, as well as care. If you deeply believe that your fellow’s soul is at stake, doesn’t it behoove you to try and save it? How do you dissipate that kind of evangelical commitment? This is a complex problem that I can't begin to know how to solve

Second, I'll speak about what I'll call the problem of pacifism.  A scene from Woody Allen's Manhattan:
Woody: Hey, has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in NJ? I read it in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, get some bricks and baseball bats -- and really explain things to ‘em.
Man in tuxedo: There is a devastating satirical piece on that in the op-ed of the Times. It is devastating.
Woody: Well, a satirical piece in the times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point...
Woman in cocktail dress: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.
Woody: No no, physical force is always better with Nazis...cuz it’s hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots on...
Not everyone wants to talk about differences. Some actually might want to silence you, perhaps kill you. How do you function in a world of violence without succumbing to violence? Put another way, how do you fight a Nazi without becoming a Nazi?

Third, the problem of preaching to the choir. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a giant of interfaith dialogue, once said: It doesn’t matter what denomination you’re from, as long as you’re ashamed of it. As Mehdi Aminrazavi said earlier this week, the people who come to this kind of “table” are likely to be self-critical, open, with a sense of humor, etc. So how do you get past this choir of interfaith-oriented members? I’ll try to address that later.

2. Why Interfaith Dialogue Matters

A few months ago, I was asked to speak at Aspen Middle School, along with Rev. Gregg Anderson of the Aspen Chapel, with whom my congregation shares a facility. The 7th grade was starting a new unit on World History and World Religions, and they wanted to hear from the “horse’s mouth” about Judaism and Christianity. Gregg and I summed up Judaism and Christianity in a few was BRILLIANT... Gregg made a point, as he does, to emphasize Jesus’ Jewish identity.

During the Q&A, a girl raised her hand. You could see the gears turning as she asked, thoughtfully, “If Jesus was a Jew...then why did the Jews kill him?” My heart sank. I guess I was naive to think we had gotten past that one. And the undertone was that this 7th-grade girl had heard from someone that “the Jews” killed Jesus. Not "some Jews," not "some Jews allied with the Roman authorities"...but “the Jews.” We did explain the nuances of the history, but I was still a little depressed afterward. Bad learning is hard to undo.

A footnote to this story: Sarah Silverman (a Jewish comedienne) tells of being bullied in middle school by Christian kids who taunted her on the playground by calling her Christ-Killer and worse. She responded, “Yeah, see what I did to your savior? Imagine what I could do to you.” This, by the way, is a classic example of Jewish humor borne of persecution and pain...

Perhaps it's some small consolation that this story means that parents and religious leaders do influence people's attitudes. That just as religious leaders and parents can plant the seeds of destructive ideas like this, so too can they be catalysts for good. That said, it also concerns me that, as Khaleel said in the opening panel, fewer people identify as “religious” these days. So what are their sources of influence? Russell Razzaque has written about his experience with radical Islamic recruiters in grad school: students who’d been raised Muslim were more likely to reject extremist radical Islamic Society recruiters than students without a Muslim background. Put in other terms, by GK Chesterton: “For when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.”

3. What Dialogue Should Look Like

Based on these thoughts, I have a few suggestions for what interfaith dialogue could and should look like. 

I think we need to be more committed to bringing in unwilling or “unsuspecting” partners for dialogue on religious questions. Let's not shy away from meeting with the local evangelical pastor (thanks, Carolyn, for bringing me into relationship with one here in the valley) and try not to avoid the difficult topics. Let's ry to turn discomfort into curiosity and learning. Not to mention relationship building. For relationships are more transformative than arguments or ideas.

We need to devote more effort to mining traditional sources for precedents for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. For example, an Orthodox Jewish theologian I've studied, Michael Wyschogrod, does just this. In considering the Noahide (i.e. pre-Jewish) revelation, Wyschogrod reminds those who take the Torah to be the word of God that they must also take seriously that God may have revealed Godself to other peoples at other times. Who are we to speak definitely about how God has or has not acted in that regard, especially considering that the revelation to Noah gives us a clear example of God giving law and teaching to non-Jews? As Dr. Ochs mentioned, the rabbis taught that revelation at Sinai came out in the 70 languages of the 70 nations. There is multiplicity at the core of our traditions, but it is upon us to lift that up.

Interfaith dialogue should be among people steeped in their own tradition. It is pretty weak and shallow if the participants are disconnected or ignorant of their own faith. Otherwise it’s a nice intellectual conversation, but it doesn't facilitate a deeper personal connection.

Finally, I think we should do a better job of exposing religious hypocrisy and scriptural dishonesty. In other words, if you can’t defeat fundamentalists/radicals (i.e. opponents of interfaith cooperation) on your interpretive terms, then defeat them on theirs. Or, at the very least, advocate for intellectual and scriptural honesty.

Consider this episode involving Dr. Joel Hoffman, professor at Hebrew Union College. Hoffman has written about the near impossibility of translating biblical Hebrew without necessarily refracting it through an interpretive and cultural lens (in And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible’s Original Meaning). Recently, he wrote a letter to Piers Morgan after an interview with mega-church Pastor Joel Osteen. It's worth reading in its entirety:
Dear Mr. Morgan:  
I believe you have been promoting bigotry and helping to perpetrate a fraud.During both of your interviews with Pastor Joel Osteen on your CNN broadcast, you let the religious leader tell your audience that Scripture calls homosexuality a sin. But you didn't ask him where the Bible says that.
It's both an important point and an easy one to settle. You could have asked Pastor Osteen for the chapter and verse that he thinks calls homosexuality a sin. What you would have found is that he couldn't provide it, because Pastor Osteen was expressing his personal opinion, not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn't say that homosexuality is a sin.In fact, even though Scripture discusses "sin" a lot, the word never appears in connection with homosexuality. 
Certainly there are passages in the Bible that address aspects of homosexuality, most notably in Leviticus and Romans. But years of interpretation have distorted their original meanings. And there are other passages that may even support homosexuality. 
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 describe certain male homosexual behavior in the same terms as meals that seat Egyptians and Israelites together (Genesis 43:32). Both are called a to'evah in Hebrew, a term that was apparently meant to suggest something that isn't inherently wrong even though a particular culture frowns on it. The leap from "certain male homosexual behavior" to "homosexuality in general" is a clear mistake, as is the jump from "culturally odd" to "sin." Leviticus doesn't say that homosexuality is a sin. It says that some behavior was unusual. 
Romans 1:24-27 also deals with homosexuality, putting it in the context of a penalty that God doled out in response to human mistakes. That's why Romans 1:24 begins with "Therefore, God delivered them..." Though nothing is specifically called a "sin" in Romans 1, what comes closest is the behavior in Romans 1:18-23 (primarily idolatry), not the punishment for that behavior (homosexuality). Romans 1:24-27 doesn't list human sins but rather God's actions. 
Genesis 2:18, by contrast, suggests that it is "not good for people to be alone." If it turns out that in order to avoid being alone some men have to be with other men, and some women with other women, then Genesis 2:18 may mean that supporting homosexuality (and, therefore, same-sex marriage) is not only permitted by the Bible but in fact required. Obviously, people may expand on Leviticus, Romans, Genesis and other passages in ways that turn homosexuality into sin. But these are interpretations, not "what the Bible says." 
It seems to me that Pastor Osteen, as a religious leader, has a right to believe what he wants and to encourage others to follow. So if he doesn't accept homosexuality, it's his prerogative to spread his anti-homosexuality message. But I think it's dishonest when he pretends that his opinions are those of the Bible. 
Similarly, if you don't like homosexuality, it's your right to say so on air. But I think it's irresponsible of you to let a guest tell your audience that something is in the Bible without even asking where.This glaring omission is all the more surprising in light of your claim to be "challenging." Why didn't you challenge Pastor Osteen on this basic factual issue?  
I look forward to your response. 
Sincerely,Joel M. Hoffman, PhD
It's impossible to read the Bible except through a lens of one kind or another. Those of us who believe in dialogue, in multiple perspectives, and in more than one path to Truth must make it known. We must know the religious sources as well as those who hate interfaith dialogue, those who clothe their hateful and exclusionary opinions in holy garb. We must be able to call them out for hypocrisy, inaccuracy, and scriptural dishonesty. There’s no such thing as reading the Bible literally: all readings are interpretation. (Some are better than others, but all are interpretations.) There is not a loud enough public religious voice on this -- so I ask my colleagues in conclusion: what are we religious leaders waiting for? What are we afraid of? When will we show our communities and the world that there is a different kind of religious reader, leader, and community?

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