Interreligious Bridges and Barriers

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My passion for interreligious engagement1 is due in no
small measure to my family’s journeys. I am the grandson
of immigrants who fled persecution in Eastern Europe
and settled in Chicago. Their contacts with Christian neighbors were limited
and not especially positive. As youngsters growing up in Chicago, my
parents learned firsthand about anti-Semitism and the dangers of taking
shortcuts through unfriendly neighborhoods.
I grew up in a middle-class Chicago suburb with both Christian and
Jewish friends. I was thrilled when my high school Spanish teacher invited
me to join 15 students and teachers on a trip to Mexico over the winter
vacation. My elation turned to shock and indignation when my
Zeida—a proud shohet and fervently observant Jew—warned my parents
not to let me go, lest I enter a church and betray my faith and my people.
“They will make him a goy,” Zeida admonished my mother.
I was a rebellious teenager aided and abetted by loving parents, who
embodied the religious and cultural melting pot that was America’s holy
grail in the 1960s. I ignored my grandfather’s solemn warning and made
three trips to Mexico during my high school years, touring numerous
churches and cathedrals on each visit. Ironically, those trips helped renew
my own Jewish faith, informed my subsequent decision to enter the rabbinate,
and kindled a lifelong interest in interreligious endeavors.
As a teenager, I thought my grandfather’s views were silly and naïve.
Years later, I came to understand that my Zeida embodied his milieu, with
formative years in a Kiev rife with anti-Semitic persecution and adult years
in a racially, ethnically, and religiously divided Chicago. Zeida could not
conceive of a world where Jews and members of other faith communities
join together for interreligious dialogue and engagement. His grandson
lives nearly five decades after the seminal Vatican proclamation Nostra
Aetate opened the doors of interreligious cooperation and commitment.
I am often asked why Jews should expend limited resources in the
quest to forge bonds with other religious communities. We participate in
this work because it is an intrinsic component of our Jewish DNA. In the
celebrated rabbinic debate about what constitutes the greatest Torah
teaching,2 Ben Azzai trumps Rabbi Akiba’s choice of “Love your neighbor
as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) with his own citation, “This is the book of the
generations of Adam; when God created man, He made him in the likeness
of God” (Gen. 5:1). We may find it challenging to love our neighbors,
but we bear a common lineage and a shared mandate to see the divine
image in them. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
Every great faith has within it harsh texts which, read literally, can be taken
to endorse narrow particularism, suspicion of strangers and intolerance
toward those who believe differently than we do. Every great faith also has
within it sources that emphasize kinship with the stranger, empathy with
the outsider, and courage that leads people to extend a hand across boundaries
of estrangement and hostility. The choice is ours. Will the generous
texts of our tradition serve as interpretative keys to the rest, or will the
abrasive passages determine our ideas of what we are called to do? . . . I
believe we are being called by God to see in the human other a trace of the
divine Other.3
Interreligious outreach is consistent with our core Jewish values and
ideals. It is not only the righteous course of action; it is the intelligent
course of action. Worldwide, the Jewish population is estimated to be 0.22
percent of the global population.4 Utilizing the core definition of Jewish
identity in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews, Jews con-
stitute 2.2 percent of the adult U.S. population.5 In my own city, the large
and vibrant Jewish community represents 4 percent of the population of
metropolitan Los Angeles.
One need only do the math of the demographic equations to recognize
the import of interfaith engagement. Since its founding in 1906, the
American Jewish Committee (AJC) has placed special emphasis on
advancing interreligious and intergroup relations in America and across
the globe. AJC leaders understand that the well-being of the Jewish community
is tied to that of other faith groups. Whether our interfaith outreach
is prompted by enlightened self-interest, altruism, or both factors,
we serve the Jewish people well when we engage our neighbors in discourse,
education, and advocacy.
Today we find a seemingly endless array of programs and projects in
the interreligious arena. Prof. Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook of Claremont
School of Theology identifies four models of interreligious encounter,
which she calls dialogues of life, action, spiritual experience, and understanding.
6 Interfaith programs include bilateral (e.g., Catholic-Jewish) and
multilateral (e.g., Christian-Jewish-Muslim) conversations, joint religious
celebrations and worship services, text study, social action projects, pulpit
exchanges, seminars and conferences for clergy and academics, interfaith
study tours, and many others. These experiences share one or both of two
goals—to build bridges of respect and understanding of the religious
beliefs and practices of others, and to forge coalitions based on shared values
of democracy, pluralism, and human rights. To that end, I offer three
guidelines to foster meaningful interreligious engagement.
1. We are all children of God, but we do not all share the same
narratives, beliefs, and practices.
We need to dig deeper in interfaith projects and programs. A friendship
circle of well-intentioned people holding hands and singing Kumbaya
does not qualify as a productive interreligious encounter. Planners of
interfaith worship services tend to aim for the lowest common denominator
of each participating faith community, and become boring, pareve
exercises in the process. I much prefer to be an observer at worship services
and rituals of other religious faiths, even as I invite their adherents to
do likewise in the Jewish community. Thoughtful interreligious engage-
Mark S. Diamond
ment highlights not only commonalities, but historical, theological, and
textual differences as well.
The year 2015 marks a half-century of sustained and dramatic interfaith
progress in the afterglow of Nostra Aetate and the faithful leadership
of bold pioneers and their heirs in the interreligious arena. When we
engage religious interlocutors, we must never forget the sordid history of
interfaith relations in the first two millennia. In the Christian world, anti-
Semitism, persecution, death, and destruction—often carried out in Jesus’
name—largely marked relations with Jews. Blood libels, accusations of
well poisoning, devil worship, host desecration, and other alleged crimes
inspired pogroms, murder, rape, and the forced conversion of Jews and
Jewish communities. This was the tragic prelude to the systematic murder
of 6 million Jewish men, women, and children at the hands of the Nazis
and their henchmen. Even as we lift up narratives of righteous Gentiles
who demonstrated kindness and compassion in the face of evil, we cannot
allow others to erase or minimize the prevailing interfaith legacy of hatred
and intolerance in word and deed.
2. Interreligious dialogue is enhanced by the participation of individuals
who understand, respect, and love their own faith traditions and
communal institutions.
It is easy to find a sympathetic cleric or adherent who purports to represent
a given faith community and agrees with the public or private agenda
of an interfaith program’s sponsors. Self-proclaimed religious leaders or
those who have left their own faith are ready and willing to fill the bill.
This interfaith “cherry-picking” is at best naïve, and at worse misguided
and dangerous. We recoil when a messianic Jewish “rabbi” is invited to
preach and teach Torah at an ecumenical or interfaith event, or Jews who
call for Israel’s dismantling are invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish
community at church assemblies and interfaith gatherings.
We err when we relegate the interreligious arena to fringe groups and
marginal individuals. We err when we avoid difficult issues, such as proselytization
and the centrality of Israel in Jewish life and thought, in our
interfaith dialogues. Serious interreligious conversation is predicated upon
the active participation of leaders who are faithful to their own norms and
ways. In the Jewish world, this translates into the active participation of a
broad swath of rabbinic and communal leaders—conservative and progressive;
clergy and laity; Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and
Reform. While I respect and appreciate the special halakhic and institutional
challenges faced by Orthodox colleagues in this regard, Jewish
interreligious engagement is diminished when they are not at the table.
The path of interreligious engagement will be strewn with bumps and
The historic rapprochement in Catholic-Jewish relations since Nostra
Aetate has seen major obstacles along the way—the establishment of a
Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz, the beatification of Edith
Stein, the expected sainthood of Pope Pius XII despite his controversial
role in the Holocaust, and Pope Benedict XVI’s reinstatement of Bishop
Richard Williamson, among others. Sustained progress in interfaith relations
will also be marked by setbacks and controversies, as befits all complex,
evolving relationships. The challenge is how to build interreligious
relationships and partnerships that enable participants to overcome
bumps and barriers with wisdom and sekhel.
One valuable lesson for Jews engaged in interreligious work is the
realization that it is not always about us. Faith communities and their
leaders have multiple agendas and reasons for doing what they do. To cite
one example, Jewish relations and concerns are not always first and foremost
on the Vatican’s list of priorities. The Pope does not awaken each
morning wondering what “the Jews” will think of his edicts and actions.
Nor do cardinals, archbishops, bishops, judicatory officials, and clergy of
other religious denominations place our interests at the top of their respective
agendas. We should never refrain from speaking out when the doctrines
and practices of others harm our interests and impair our relations
with them. At the same time, we must do our homework to avoid sweeping
generalizations about their faiths and to gain a better understanding of
the diverse texts, theologies and polities of our interlocutors.
Narratives of communal and individual achievements in the interreligious
arena should motivate us to redouble efforts to build bridges with
other faith communities. In the spring of 2014, the Los Angeles region of
the American Jewish Committee partnered with the Archdiocese of Los
Angeles to sponsor a groundbreaking seminar on Latino-Jewish relations.
Mark S. Diamond
“Exploring Bonds, Celebrating Traditions: A Day of Learning and Dialogue
for Rabbis and Latino Priests” brought together 35 Jewish and Latino
Catholic clergy for study and reflection. The Jewish cohort included
Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform congregational rabbis, faculty members
of seminaries and universities, and leaders of communal organizations.
The Latino Catholic cohort included an auxiliary bishop of the
Archdiocese, parish priests, administrators and leaders of Catholic institutions
and social service organizations.
Keynote presenter Rabbi Marc D. Angel shared his experiences growing
up in a proud, vibrant Sephardic Jewish community in Seattle. Rabbi
Angel’s personal narrative and his insights into Sephardic life, Ladino language,
and minority acculturation led to robust roundtable conversations
during the seminar. Rabbis and priests discussed and debated issues of
faith, relations between diaspora communities and their homelands,
immigration reform, and myths and stereotypes about “the other” among
Latinos and Jews, especially anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views. Rabbi
Angel urged participants to find the delicate balance that connects these
two minority groups and their respective concerns about maintaining traditions
while remaining open to change and progress.
The rabbi-Latino priest seminar elicited positive evaluations from
participants and a call for future collaborative programs. “Exploring
Bonds, Celebrating Traditions” is an example of “top-down” interfaith
engagement spearheaded by two communal partners with a long history
of collaboration. We conclude with an example of a personal relationship
that literally changed the course of history—Karol Wojtyla’s childhood
friendship with a Jewish boy named Jerzy Kluger.7 Their hometown of
Wadowice, Poland was 80 percent Catholic and 20 percent Jewish, and
the Wojtyla and Kluger families fostered and encouraged their sons’ close
“Jurek” Kluger and “Lolek” Wotyla remained lifelong friends, and
their relationship strengthened when Kluger settled in Rome and Wojtyla
later became Pope John Paul II. The newly crowned pope granted his first
papal audience to “Jurek” and his family, to the astonishment of assembled
heads of state, cardinals and other dignitaries. Kluger became a confidant
of John Paul II and a trusted emissary in the pope’s efforts to heal Catholic-
Jewish relations, highlighted by the historic establishment of Vatican ties
to the state of Israel in 1994.
This true story offers vivid testimony to the awesome and unpredictable
power of the relations we nurture with colleagues, friends, neighbors,
and others in our midst. It reminds us that we change hearts and
minds one relationship at a time. In so doing, we have the power to
change the world.
1. The author uses the term “interreligious” interchangeably with the term
“interfaith” for the purposes of this article. The latter word is sometimes used
to denote dialogue, study, and engagement between adherents of the three
Abrahamic faiths, while “interreligious” refers to a broader array of faith traditions
and some groups that do not self identify as faith groups per se.
2. Sifra on Leviticus 19:18.
3. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of
Civilizations (2002: Continuum), pp. 207–208.
4. “Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents,”
5. This net figure includes those who say they are Jews by religion and others
who were raised Jewish or have a Jewish parent, and say they have no religion.
If we include those who were raised Jewish or had at least one Jewish
parent but now identity with another religion, and a “Jewish affinity” group
of others who consider themselves Jewish, the percentage rises to 3.8 percent
of the adult U.S. population.
6. Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook, God Beyond Borders: Interreligious Learning
Among Faith Communities (2014: Pickwick Publications), pp. 37–40.
7. For a more comprehensive survey of Jerzy Kluger’s impact on Catholic-
Jewish relations, see his obituary in The New York Times, January 7, 2012.