Current Journal

In this brief essay, I outline several key components that I believe are essential to interreligious education for future American rabbis. Before delving into this discussion, however, it is important to state that there are some significant challenges to implementing a meaningful interreligious educational agenda into the contemporary rabbinical school curriculum. In speaking with administrators and faculty from several different seminaries, they repeatedly raise the issue of time. The existing curricula in all of the schools I am familiar with—across the denominational and nondenominational spectrum—are already very full. Further, in many of the non-Orthodox schools, students necessarily spend a great deal of time developing basic language and classical text skills, since they often enter these programs with limited prior Jewish learning. Where can one fit in courses in interfaith dialogue or comparative theology when already there is not enough time for Tanakh, Talmud, Halakhah, and the like? In speaking with students, another dimension of the time dilemma emerges: many of them come to rabbinical school after spending long periods in non-Jewish (mostly secular) environments, and they now seek a deep immersion in Jewish religious life for personal and professional growth. As such, they do not necessarily see engagement in interfaith educational activities as being crucial at this point in their journeys.

 

We open this issue of JIRS with an essay by Rabbi Or Rose of Hebrew College about the need for interreligious education in Rabbinical Schools. In arguing his case, Rose discusses the pedagogic foundations of this work and offers several brief curricular suggestions. In response to Rose’s essay, his co-directors at the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE, a joint venture of HC and Andover Newton Theological School), Dr. Jennifer Howe Peace and Celene Ibrahim-Lizzio, offer reflections on related dimensions of interreligious leadership in general, and for the Christian and Muslim communities specifically.

In an effort to extend the conversation about rabbinic education specifically, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College shares her thoughts on Rose’s piece, anchoring it in her many years of pioneering work implementing such programming at the RRC. Rounding out this forum is a response co-written by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Yael Shy about how the pedagogic elements discussed by Rose relate to their experience working on interreligious leadership education with undergraduates at New York University’s Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership.

In crafting this special section, we hope to engender further conversation about the nature of interreligious leadership as it emerges as a distinct vocational path and a subject of scholarly discussion.

To what extent is Christianity complicit in the genocide perpetrated by the Third Reich? What continuity exists between Christian teaching about alleged Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion and Nazi ideology? To what extent is such teaching discontinuous with it?

How, precisely, to assess the degree of Christian complicity is fraught with difficulty. Not surprisingly, Holocaust historians differ in their judgment about the extent of Christian responsibility. Quantification, however, is not the issue, as if continuity and discontinuity could be apportioned in a mathematical formula. The preponderance of evidence, however, reveals that Christian teaching—both in what was explicitly said and in what was left unsaid—bears considerable culpability for the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the larger context in which the Third Reich carried out genocide reveals other significant causes of the Shoah.

There are clearly many ways to address the issue of interfaith dialogue in an academic context. A first distinction may easily come when tackling the question: Why do we care about interfaith dialogue? The answers scholars, instructors, and students come up with may be very different. Among the most common is the consideration that our world is getting more and more diverse, and people are living in multireligious environments. We should therefore learn how to live together at our best and invest in social cohesion. Dialogue, then, has a very practical and communitarian aim. However, this is not the only answer one can give.

We are thus faced with a field approached with different aims, at different stages of personal growth, and in different ways. Whether we agree with the first reasoning or with the second or with both, it is clear that this “interfaith dialogue” people are interested in learning or that they feel may be relevant for their future activities is primarily concerned with concrete and necessary encounters with an “other” from a different faith community. It is therefore imperative to discuss what can be taught to these people and how.

The practice of interreligious dialogue has long concentrated on the challenges that competing religious beliefs hold for the creation of an interfaith community. Differing religious beliefs about the nature of human existence and the role of humanity in the world construct distinctive religious identities grounded in particular thought systems. These religious identities bind some members of the interfaith community together but simultaneously distinguish them from ‘others’. While attention to competing beliefs invites us to consider the role of religion in identity-formation, this focus tends to recognize ‘difference’ along only one axis with the distinction being among discrete faith communities. So the understanding goes: Christian identity is different from Muslim identity because Christians believe differently than Muslims.

This approach, however, when it is abstracted from material, social and embodied realities leaves little room to consider difference emerging from other areas and intersecting with religious belief to inform religious identities. The lens of gender, for example, invites us to ask: What difference does it make when we consider women’s experiences in the light of claims to religious truth and the formation of religious identity? Informed by feminist methodologies, I have argued that attention to gender makes a difference in the production of religious beliefs, in the experience of religious identities and in our theological conclusions about the multiplicity of religions. Analyzing the absence of women’s voices and experiences within this discussion and working out the logic of their inclusion, challenges abstract theological production with embodied, embedded and dynamic religious identities arising out of the intersection of gender and religion and being constructed across religious boundaries.

In our times, the transformative power of such forms of resistance is attested to by figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and so many others who have not found their names in the headlines. They remain a truly efficacious source of vision and inspiration that can motivate us to dedicate ourselves for the long haul to the tedious and burdensome yet exhilarating work of liberation from oppression of all sorts. The oppressive elements can be found in the externally observable and analyzable human-made structures that comprise the political, social, economic, ecological, and other dimensions of life as a global society. These oppressive elements can also be found in the internal forum, in our individual and collective psyche, in our received cultural attitudes and ways of seeing, even, or perhaps especially in our religiously motivated habits of mind and of behavior. Wherever these oppressive elements may be located, rather than just passively putting up with them, taking an active stance of resisting them becomes a transformative power, a subversive force that can undermine and hopefully ultimately overcome these prevailing oppressive structures in our public and private lives.

“Forgive, but do not forget,” the Dalai Lama advises us. If this suggestion were to be uttered by anyone else, giving Holocaust survivors “advice” on what to do with the horrendous crimes perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies and supporters against the entire Jewish people and against humanity, it would be dismissed outright. But beholding the stature of the one who is uttering this, and what he and his people have been through and are still struggling with, and how it is costing him and his people, one is more readily disposed to lend an ear.

To read Nahman's work solely as a poetic recapitulation of earlier mystical ideas is to dramatically shortchange the text in front of us. Nahman was more ambitious, his mind more restless. And the literature he left behind is much more than simply a kabbalistic paint-by-numbers.

Nahman, after all, understood himself, as did many other kabbalists throughout history, as a mythical figure. Very much like his Christian contemporary William Blake, Nahman created an elaborate mythological universe in which he himself was a seminal figure. For Nahman (and so too for his followers), his life and work represented a spiritual endeavor of the very highest order, a religious project, which sought to effect nothing less than a mythological re-ordering of reality. Though Nahman was plagued, throughout his short life, by searing moments of doubt and self-loathing, he saw himself, quite self-consciously at times, as a transformational figure in the whole history of the universe, the last reincarnation of a very great soul (that is, the soul of Moses) who had the potential to bring about the final reparation of the broken cosmos. Thus, from the perspective of the Bratslav tradition, the inimitable life of the Rebbe, along with the literature that he left behind, are artifacts of singular significance, mystical ciphers against which the careful student might decode something of the very core of religious experience.

But what, precisely, is the spiritual vision that Nahman wants to communicate?

Havruta is an Aramaic word meaning friendship or fellowship. As an ancient form of textual study, it has become normative in the world of Jewish traditional study in the yeshiva or beit midrash. It involves a pair of students helping each other to read and understand the written text together. The word refers both to the partners engaged in the study as well as the actual process of collaborative learning. There are three types of dynamics involved in Havruta learning. The first is the idea of shared ownership of the text in which both partners equally engage in exegesis and isogesis collaboratively. The second is the active listening and reflecting back of each partner in order to fully understand the stance of the partner Havruta relationships can become lifelong relationships that may begin with the text but continue in a larger context of work, friendship or lifelong study. It becomes a spiritual practice and a means of meaning making between two trusted study and life partners. The learning skills developed in Havruta can include critical reasoning, finely honed argumentation, second person perspective taking, analytical reasoning, appreciation and wonder to name but a few. These learning stances are not dissimilar from the impact of collaborative and cooperative learning. The Havruta model became a conceptual framework for designing a course in teaching and learning across two religious traditions as well as providing a guiding framework for the relationship between instructors and between instructors and students.

In this course, we used Havruta widely and extended it to dyads and larger group work as well as between ourselves as instructors. Student feedback demonstrated the powerful experiences of working closely with colleagues from another religious perspective and tradition and specifically appreciated the havruta relationshipmodeled by the instructors. This approach honors both particularism and pluralism among faith traditions. The course content focused the teaching and learning in ourtwo religious traditions in three foci: textual study, teaching and learning for social responsibility and enculturation of customs and ceremonies. These were areas we felt had significant valence in both traditions but with distinct contributions offered by each faith. It was our goal thereforeto ‘teach about’ these foci in two traditions but also ‘teach from’ these foci towards deeper and broader understanding.

 

In the summer of 2013, one of the researchers on this project, Terry Shoemaker, worked with Harvard’s Pluralism Project to document religious pluralism and interfaith activities in the city of Bowling Green, Kentucky. By the end of the research project, a unique level (for the South Central Kentucky region) of religious diversity was apparent including Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim faith communities. In a region dominated by myriad versions of Christianity, the city has been diversifying religiously since the 1990s. The diversification is fueled by the resettlement of refugees into the area including Bosnian, Burmese, Burundi, and Iraqi immigrants. Yet, even with the presence of religious diversity, very little, if any, formal interfaith dialogue and cooperation was discovered.

“Skillful means” is a specific term within Mahayana Buddhism that applies to how the Buddha works to end the suffering of all sentient beings. In the older Theravada forms of Buddhism, the Buddha is not thought to work any more on behalf of suffering sentient beings. Theravada Buddhism taught that the Buddha had discovered the ultimate path to enlightenment, taught it to others for 30 years, and then entered his final nirvana. He is now at peace, but we can follow his path and thus go where he has gone, freeing ourselves from the endless cycle of reincarnation that is samsara.

Modifying this view, the Lotus Sutra, a foundational text of Mahayana Buddhism written three to five centuries after the historical Buddha lived, asserts that the Buddha is not gone from this world but transcends it and can still help disciples on the path using “skillful means.” In fact, it reveals that there are innumerable buddhas and bodhisattvas in uncountable heavenly realms ready to help those who ask, a notion that is absolutely untenable in Theravadan thought.

We will turn to the Lotus Sutra to understand its view of “skillful means” because its ideas will answer a conundrum at the heart of the writings of Meister Eckhart, a medieval Christian mystic and master theologian—why he bends words so far that they break, saying things in his sermons that he knows are not true, provoking charges of heresy. I will suggest that Eckhart was employing “skillful means” and challenging others to do the same.

In this paper, we embark upon an analysis and comparison of the ethical and soteriological nature of two highly distinctive forms of meditation: the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) and the ‘cultivation of loving-kindness’ (mettā-bhāvanā) in the Theravāda Buddhist tradition. This work is done from the standpoint of a scholar of Buddhism, looking both into the world of Ignatian spirituality and through this looking afresh into Buddhist practice. The comparison seeks to foster greater mutual understanding between Christians and Buddhists through examining the imaginative and emotive language employed in these practices and exploring the complex role that meditation plays in the ethics of both traditions. Through each practice, we are taken through the imagination into the world of ethical aspiration and transformation and, ultimately, directed toward the final goal of each tradition. This final goal, explained further below, can be characterized as both cognitive and emotional in the Buddhist tradition: cognitive in the sense of seeing reality as it truly is, as opposed to through the obscurations of ignorance; and emotional in the sense of having overcome the twin vices of greed and aversion. In the Ignatian tradition the final goal is similarly based on a fully developed cognitive capacity, described as discernment leading ultimately toward seeing God in all things, and a correspondingly overcoming impulses and desires that deviate from the will of God.

8195480419_0181f3a20a_kPhoto, “Morning in Richmond,” by Richard Fisher, via Flickr.

We open this issue of JIRS with an essay by Rabbi Or Rose of Hebrew College about the need for interreligious education in Rabbinical Schools. In arguing his case, Rose discusses the pedagogic foundations of this work and offers several brief curricular suggestions. In response to Rose’s essay, his co-directors at the Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education (CIRCLE, a joint venture of HC and Andover Newton Theological School), Dr. Jennifer Howe Peace and Celene Ibrahim-Lizzio, offer reflections on related dimensions of interreligious leadership in general, and for the Christian and Muslim communities specifically.

In an effort to extend the conversation about rabbinic education specifically, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College shares her thoughts on Rose’s piece, anchoring it in her many years of pioneering work implementing such programming at the RRC. Rounding out this forum is a response co-written by Rabbi Yehuda Sarna and Yael Shy about how the pedagogic elements discussed by Rose relate to their experience working on interreligious leadership education with undergraduates at New York University’s Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership.

In crafting this special section, we hope to engender further conversation about the nature of interreligious leadership as it emerges as a distinct vocational path and a subject of scholarly discussion.

This pedagogical dialogue is then followed by work from Mary C. Boys, who revisits questions and themes from her recent scholarship in “Christianity’s Complicity in the Shoah: Continuities and Discontinuities.” Elena Dini brings a voice of praxis from the field in her “Processing Experiences Within an Academic Framework: A Challenge for Interfaith Education,” and Jeannine Hill Fletcher reflects on the intersectionalities of multiplicities of identity in this field in “Constructing Religious Identity in a Cosmopolitan World: The Theo-Politics of Interfaith Work.” Ruben L. F. Habito shares a reflective voice as inter-religious practice in “When Victim Meets Perpetrator: The Question of Atonement and Forgiveness: Buddhist and Christian Reflections.”

In “Between the Heart and the Spring: Nahman of Bratslav, Paul Tillich, and the Theology of Anxiety,” Benjamin Resnick connects mystical reflection with theologies of despair. Michael Shire and Robert W. Pazmiño provide another snapshot of interfaith teaching and learning in their “A Curriculum for Interfaith Study and Teaching.” In “The Mason Jar Mentality: Conservative Protestantism & Interfaith Cooperation in the American South,” Terry Shoemaker, James Marcus Hughes, Farrin Marlow, Megan Maddern, and Emily Potter share their research from documenting interfaith work and pluralism in Kentucky. Finally, Scott Steinkerchner connects the work of Meister Eckhart as applied to the Lotus Sutra in “Meister Eckhart and the Lotus Sutra on Unleashing Skillful Means,” and Justin S. Whitaker examines ethics through a comparative lens in “Reflecting on Meditation’s Ethics: Ignatian ‘Spiritual Exercises’ and Buddhist ‘Mettā-Bhāvanā.’” We are honored to share these perspectives and scholarship with you.

IMG_7433

This issue’s guest editor is Dr. Victoria Barnett, Director of Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Dr. Barnett is a graduate of Indiana University, Union Theological Seminary, New York (M. Div.), and George Mason University (Ph.D.).  She is the author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler (Oxford University Press, 1992) and Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity during the Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1999), and editor/translator of Wolfgang Gerlach’s And the Witnesses were Silent: the Confessing Church and the Jews (University of Nebraska Press, 2000) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Fortress Press, 2000), as well as numerous articles and book chapters on the churches during the Holocaust.

History as a discipline, and this history in particular, can offer powerful insights into such engagement. Historical work gives us the concrete record and the actual details that must be considered when we attempt to draw theological and ethical conclusions. The historical record of religious leaders and communities during the Holocaust is a complex one that prevents simplistic conclusions. It includes the record of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox church leaders who embraced National Socialism, as well as those who courageously opposed it. It includes the records of Muslims who rescued their neighbors in countries like Albania and Tunisia, as well as the history of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who embraced common cause with the Nazi regime for his own political aims. The reactions of some religious leaders were shaped by their theological understandings; others were driven more by factors like nationalism and institutional self-interest. This history shows us how certain theological interpretations of scriptural texts can be used to justify the murder of innocent human beings. It illustrates the ways in which the institutional church all too often made the same moral compromises as other German institutions. The ways in which Germans, church leaders, and others addressed this historical record after 1945 is instructive for other post-genocidal situations. The unfolding history of Jewish-Christian dialogue after 1945 offers rich insights into other difficult interreligious conversations.

In the summer of 1995, I arrived in Norway for a sabbatical year that included research about the ways in which Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” targeted even the very small population of Norwegian Jews who lived north of the Arctic Circle. The items on my “to do” list included meeting an early August application deadline for participation in the first of a series of biennial symposia on the Shoah. Organized by Leonard Grob and Henry Knight, the symposium would take place the following June at Wroxton College, Oxfordshire, England. Grob and Knight convened and sustained a group of scholars—international, interdisciplinary, interfaith, and intergenerational—whose tenth meeting takes place in June 2014. From its inception, the Wroxton symposium has tapped its roots in Holocaust studies to advance reflection and action focused on present-day situations, particularly those in which ethical and spiritual concerns loom large. Its members commit to working together beyond the few days that we spend at Wroxton College every other year. Writing projects play a key role in that commitment.

It is, to many of us, obvious that dialogue is a necessary response to the Holocaust. We need dialogue, need the common ground that makes dialogue possible. We know all too well what happens when human beings become disconnected from each other, and how people with whom we do not speak can become dehumanized. Dialogue is not the single answer to the world’s problems, but it is hard to imagine our finding our way to any sort of solutions without it.

Yet for those of us who engage in interreligious dialogue, it is not always clear what dialogue is. We think of dialogue as involving words, and yet good dialogues involve a great deal of listening. When we listen, we have to attend both to what is said, and what is unsaid. Dialogue is inextricably connected to silence.

Most meetings on interfaith dialogue, whether they are held under the auspices of academic or confessional discourse, follow a certain format. The presenters are generally selected in a manner that will seek to ensure that they contribute to perceived harmony among the participants. This inevitably means that those who question certain cherished traditions will be ostracized. It also means that differences which are what foster the need for such dialogue will often be overlooked, and instead points of convergence, real or assumed, focused upon. Sometimes, participants may be apologists, in which case the sense of harmony precludes opposing any of their viewpoints; or they may be polemists against their own religion, which endears them to a certain crowd. In either case, very little is actually accomplished on the level of widespread benefit, although individual friendships may be forged. And perhaps this is the reason why, after more than a decade of interfaith encounters through North America, spurred on by the horrific memory of 9/11, little has been achieved. The latest Pew polls show that relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims are still, while not acrimonious, certain not indicative of a pluralist outlook. The focus of many states on banning Shariah law—something that no mainstream Muslim organization has ever solicited—indicates the result of negative othering.

Join The Discussion

You can participate in discussions of all Journal articles that we publish. Click Discuss this article and add your voice to the dialogue.