Is Interfaith Dialogue Good for Religious Jews?

Dear Josep,

You may recall that last year, when By Light of Hidden Candles was released, I mentioned a certain reviewer of the observant Jewish persuasion who felt uncomfortable with the relatively positive portrayal of Christianity in the book.

Well, I also mentioned this in my TOI blog post on interfaith dialogue, and the reviewer in question happened to read it. She reached out to me, we respectfully debated the matter, and she decided to post our correspondence on her blog.

It was not the sort of thing I wanted to post here, partly because we got deep into Jewish sources and jargon and concepts that I felt were too involved and would require too much explaining, and partly because I felt that the debate was rather circular and extremely long-winded; but I gave her my permission to post it on her blog because I thought it would be good to have my position out there somewhere for people to find if I ever become famous enough for anybody to care. 😛

However, I recently discovered that she has deleted the post (no idea why). And since I’d still like my position to be out there, I decided to write my own post about it based on some of the answers I gave her.

But before I go on I feel I should clarify something. Though this blog has served as a platform for “interfaith discussion” in the context of the guest letters, sometimes I feel it’s a bit disingenuous to present our friendship as being one “between a Jew and a Christian”, because… well… let’s face it, you don’t really count as a Christian. 😛 I mean, when you start commenting here that you’re less “into Christianity” then my mother, I think it’s a biiiiit of a stretch to call you a Christian! You’re more of a… how do I put this… secular humanist theist whose beliefs are vaguely structured on Christian concepts with a suspicious bias toward their Jewish sources? Does that work? 😉 (Unfortunately it doesn’t fit very neatly into the blog’s subtitle.)

Then again, if people are gonna assume stuff about you, I’d rather it be “Christian” than “imaginary” 😛

ANYWAY. Where were we? Right–the scandalized reviewer. Below are some of the points she raised, rephrased in my own words, and my responses to them.

It makes sense to respect Christians as human beings, but why should we respect Christianity–a belief system that we believe is false?

For starters, I want to make clear what I mean when I say that I have “respect” for Christianity.

Respect doesn’t mean “agree with”. It doesn’t mean “condone”. It doesn’t mean “support”. It means “appreciate”–in the sense of hakarat hatov, gratitude, or ayin tova, generosity/seeing the good in something. I don’t think you have to agree with something to appreciate the good things about it.

I think it is possible to respect a religion (and not just the people who believe in it) without agreeing with it or supporting every part of it. Obviously, I completely reject the foundations of Christianity and the beliefs on which it was built. I have a post here in which I am very clear-cut about this (“What Do Jews REALLY Think About Jesus?“). That doesn’t mean I have to completely hate and be repulsed by everything about the religion.

In fact, I think it is important for us as Jews to acknowledge that Christianity has had an indispensable role in helping us fulfill our mission in the world–spreading knowledge and awareness of God (though their understanding of Him may, according to my beliefs, be flawed), and the adoption of the Divinely inspired principles that now stand at the center of the Western world’s concepts of morality and justice. This isn’t just my opinion. The Rambam (Maimonides) himself wrote: “All these words of the Christian Yeshua and the Ishmaeli (Muhammad) who came after him, were there to straighten our path to the Messiah, to repair the entire world and to serve God together… How? The world has already been filled with the words of the Messiah and the words of the Torah and the words of the commandments, and these things have been spread to far-away islands and many remote nations…” (Maimonides, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, Chapter 11)

Why would friendly contact between religious Jews and religious Christians be a positive thing?

After that op-ed I mentioned was published, I got a message from Lee Weissman, one of the founders of the wonderful Facebook group for discussion between Jews and Muslims, Abraham’s Tent. Lee is a religious Jew with long payot (sidecurls) and a beard and he wears a streimel on Shabbat. He is also very involved in interfaith activism, particularly with Muslims. Lee thanked me sincerely for my post and said that it saddens him that so few Jews with rich religious lives are involved in interfaith activities. “When deeply religious folks talk to one another, there is a whole different dynamic,” he said.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who (if you haven’t noticed yet) I greatly admire, is also a Jewish leader deeply committed to Torah who actively works with religious leaders of other faiths. (I wrote a thorough review of his book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, here.) I particularly love this line from his whiteboard animation video Why I Am a Jew: “I admire other civilizations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world… aval zeh shelanu, ‘but this is ours.'”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (second from the left) with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, and CEO of Sojourners, a progressive grassroots Christian movement, at a press conference in 2009. Copyright by World Economic Forum; Photo by Andy Mettler

I think most interfaith discussion and activity we encounter tends to be wishy-washy, with each side coming from a very watered-down version of whatever their faith is, and that’s a shame. Like Lee, I think that discussions between people are actually very committed to their different belief systems can be much more powerful and meaningful and should not necessarily feel threatening to either side. I would go so far as to say it’s a sign of maturity and security in your own beliefs when you are able to open up and listen to people who think differently than you.

What value can a religious Jew get out of such discussions, if not to influence the other person to come closer to an authentic relationship with God as we believe in Him?

First of all, I see these conversations as being of value to me, not necessarily to the other person–though of course I hope the feeling will be mutual. It’s not about them or what they believe. It never was. Judaism does not condone or support proselytizing, and I don’t think there’s any point in trying to convince other people to believe what you do.

I find that discussing Judaism with people of other faiths–explaining what I do and what I believe–strengthens my own commitment to Judaism. My goal is not to get them to change their beliefs, but just to help them understand who I am and where I’m coming from (which is the basic premise of this blog). Discussing our differences helps me delve more deeply into my own beliefs and clarify why I believe them and what they mean to me. These interactions inspire me and make me feel closer to God and to Judaism.

There is additional value in creating relationships among people who can help each other make the world a better place. I recently saw an interview with Rabbi Sacks where he says that he believes in “interfaith activism” as opposed to “interfaith dialogue”–that is, not sitting around discussing belief systems, but getting off our respective butts and working together toward our common goals–like feeding the hungry, treating the sick, etc. etc. etc. As religious Jews, we believe in ultimate redemption, and we also believe that we must do our part to bring it about. I believe that working with other peoples to prepare the world to receive God’s goodness is an essential part of those efforts. Tikkun olam, if you will.1

On a more personal level, I have noticed that there is a fundamental difference between my ability to connect with believing Christians over matters of faith and my ability to connect with almost anyone else–including many religious Jews, secular Jews, and even religious Muslims (with whom I generally have more in common than religious Christians).

There is something about the way many Christians talk about God that really resonates with me.

There’s a simplicity, an innocence, a sort of humility and wholehearted trust in God, that makes me feel comfortable talking about my relationship with God in superlatives and with child-like wonder, even with someone I hardly know. I can have this experience with other Jews of a certain flavor, but I think with Jews, everything tends to be more complicated, partly because Judaism is so complex, and partly because we already have so much in common. With Christians, talking about our relationship with God is our one common language when it comes to faith. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to cut right down to the deep stuff. Or maybe it’s something about the way Christians are educated. I don’t know, but it’s a definite pattern I’ve noticed.

There’s one point in By Light of Hidden Candles (page 271) where Alma expresses the thought: “How ironic was it that the person I seemed to connect with most deeply on matters of faith was a Christian?”

Her author doesn’t find it ironic at all.

But isn’t there a potential danger of certain boundaries being crossed?

Yes, there is.

And I think By Light of Hidden Candles is, among other things, a sort of meditation on that question.

We need to maintain proper boundaries; that much is clear. But what does that mean exactly? The characters of By Light of Hidden Candles consciously struggle with this question. Alma argues with her grandmother about it. Manuel consults his priest about it. Míriam hesitates–even while her life is in danger–because of it. But was their awareness of it as an issue enough? Did they draw the lines where they should have, and if they had drawn them differently, would there have been a different outcome? (Readers of By Light of Hidden Candles–I’d love to hear your thoughts, but please, no spoilers in the comments! Feel free to contact me if you’d like to share a thought that includes spoilers.)

I think my position on this should be clear from A) the fact that I wrote that book and B) the fact that I write this blog. I do think it’s possible to define and maintain appropriate boundaries, but it’s not something to be taken lightly; and though I struggle with it myself sometimes, I think there are enough benefits to justify the dangers–for me, personally. I think it’s a very individual question and I wouldn’t necessarily encourage everyone to make the choices I’ve made.

So in response to the question posed in the title of this post–is interfaith dialogue good for religious Jews?–I think it can be. And also not. It depends on the person, the circumstances, the goals of the individuals involved, and many other factors.

But doesn’t Jewish law consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry?

Now here is the real can of worms.

Time to get that can opener out again!

Yes, the majority of rabbinic authorities does consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry.

However.

While the majority opinion among sages–including the Rambam–is that Christianity counts as idol worship, there is also a respectable faction of rabbinic authorities who reject this idea–such as the Meiri (Menachem ben Solomon Meiri, 13th-century Catalan Talmudist), Rabbenu Tam (Jacob ben Meir, grandson of Rashi, 12th century France), the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 16th century Poland), and our friend the Ramban (a.k.a. the Badass Rabbi of Catalonia). It’s important to note that the Rambam was born in Muslim Cordoba and spent most of his life in Muslim Cairo, so he probably didn’t have much contact with Christians. The Meiri, Rabbenu Tam, the Rema, and Ramban, by contrast, all lived among Christians.

Furthermore, when one analyzes the writings of the Rambam in which he describes Christianity as idol worship, it is not obvious that this definition applies categorically to all types of Christianity.

There are a few reasons to consider Christianity a form of idol worship. The most important one is that the entire concept of the Trinity, which divides God into three “aspects” or “persons”; and we believe that “dividing” Him into three parts is still a form of idolatry even if you believe they are all parts of the same God. Same goes for the belief that God would manifest Himself in a human in any way (the divinity of Jesus as a son of God). Another problem is the use of icons, especially among Catholics. We understand that when a Christian kneels before a cross or a statue of Jesus or Mary, they are not really praying to the statue, but using the statue as a physical representation of the invisible God they are praying to. Still… I’m sure you can understand how we’d find that problematic. It’s right there in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness… You shall not prostrate yourself before them” (Exodus 20:4-5).

However, not all forms of Christianity accept the concept of the Trinity or take it literally. The Rambam lived in the 12th century, so to him, Christianity was Catholicism. Modern scholars argue that other streams do not count as idol worship even under the Rambam’s definition–including the Orthodox church, other eastern non-Orthodox streams, many Protestants, Unitarians, etc. (Basically, only Catholics are irredeemable according to this liberal interpretation of the Rambam. Sorry. 😛 )

If you look at the nafka minnas–the practical applications of these opinions–you’ll see that the Jewish attitude toward Christianity is not at all clear-cut. For example, most authorities forbid a Jew to set foot in a church, but they permit it if there is a case of need, such as, oh I don’t know, a tour guide who needs to take some Christians into a church while leading a tour. 😉 Idol worship is one of the big three commandments we’re supposed to give our lives over rather than transgress, so if Christianity were really considered equivalent to idol worship, a financial need would certainly not be grounds for lenience.

Also, there are a number of commandments pertaining to idol worship which we categorically do not apply to Christians. We are commanded to destroy idols and their accessories (Deuteronomy 12:2)–no one is advocating destroying churches and Catholic icons. We are commanded never to make a covenant with idolaters or show favor to them (Deuteronomy 7:2); no one is saying we shouldn’t have political or economic treaties with Christian nations or give them favorable treatment.

In Summary

It’s… complicated.

Isn’t everything?! 😉

Love,

Daniella


1. “Tikkun olam” is a kabbalistic concept that literally means “repairing the world”. It’s been popularized as meaning anything from environmentalism to social justice, but the source of the phrase is the kabbalistic metaphor that when God tried to bestow His goodness on the world, the “vessels shattered” and sparks of His goodness were hidden throughout the world, and it is our job to locate these sparks and “gather them back together”.

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