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A Jewish perspective on Interfaith

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

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A Jewish perspective


A normal part of life

Growing up I always believed (wrongly it turns out) that it was a Jewish requirement to have non-Jews at the Passover Seder. This was because my parents always invited the local vicar, or my RE teacher from school, or members of the local Council of Christians and Jews of which they were active members. Living as a religious minority, and attending mainstream schools, interfaith dialogue has often been a consequence of day-to-day life – without me even having to think about it!


This became a much greater daily reality when I went off to university and encountered people who had never met a Jew before. I was suddenly asked lots of questions I would have never had to consider had I stayed in the safe Jewish enclave of north-west London. This really helped me to understand my Judaism and what it meant to me, as I was forced to find answers to their questions that I was happy with. Ever since this time interfaith dialogues and encounters that I have been involved in have helped me on the one hand to understand the other person and break down stereotypes and misconceptions. On the other hand these dialogues have helped me to understand myself and my Judaism better, and made me better at expressing myself as a Jew, particularly as it encouraged me to learn more.


It’s not always easy

Judaism sometimes says things about non-Jews that I am deeply uncomfortable with. I have to remind myself that these words have often come from a period when Jews were a powerless, persecuted minority. However, an experience at an interfaith conference I was organising once taught me an important lesson about these sorts of texts. Amongst a number of passages I set for study was a prayer that can be understood to be about Judaism being the right way, and praying for a time when everyone else will come to realise this truth. Progressive Jews have altered the text a little to make it more acceptable to them, but it is still quite particularistic. When the study-pairs came back together to discuss things as a group, no one mentioned this particular prayer, so I asked them: ‘Weren’t any of the Muslims or Christians upset by the words of this prayer?’ They all looked surprised: ‘No,’ said a young Muslim woman from Egypt. ‘We all have texts and prayers like these in our traditions.’


Try this

Of course we also have some lovely texts in our traditions when it comes to dialogue. The following is a midrash – a kind of commentary on the biblical text which is often in the form of a story. I often use it with groups to talk about models of dialogue – this is one model (see if you can extract the stages of dialogue within it):


If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? – you shall help repeatedly with him.( Exodus 23:5)


It was you who established equity. (Psalms 99:4)


Rabbi Alexandri taught: Two donkey-drivers who hated each other were walking along the road. The donkey of one of the drivers lay down. His enemy saw him and passed them by. After passing he thought to himself: It says in the Torah, ‘When you see the donkey of your enemy…you must nevertheless raise it with him.’ He immediately returned and reloaded and raised the donkey together with the ‘enemy’. The designated enemy began to think: ‘If the other donkey-driver was really my enemy he wouldn’t have helped me.’ He, therefore, concluded, ‘He must really be my friend and I hated him for naught. Let me proceed to reconcile with him.’ They entered a tavern, ate and drank and made peace with each other.

What is it that caused them to make peace? The fact that one of them peered into the Torah. This is the implication of ‘It was You who established equity.’ (Tanhuma, Mishpatim, I based on a translation by Bialik)


Taking it a stage further

I think this is a really helpful grass-roots model of dialogue from an ancient text. It suggests that, although we need a little push to help us make that first step, when we have a common task to perform we can forget our differences and discover those things we share. Dialogue occurs naturally while we perform this common task. By sharing food and drink together (in this story they basically went to the pub!) we normalise relationships and are able to become friends. The key for me, however, happens after this step. It is important to me that we do not finish our dialogue when we become comfortable with each other, but use the opportunity to begin to ask one another the questions that are more difficult and require more trust. The aim of dialogue for me is not to say ‘we have so much in common, we are all the same really’ but to develop people who are comfortable with difference; while being confident in their own identity, they are able to respect others’ worldviews and appreciate the diversity of the world – it would be a very dull place if we all were the same.


Spiritually one of the texts that has informed my approach to others, particularly other faiths and also atheists, is from the book of Exodus (33:18). God and Moses are on Mount Sinai, and Moses wants to see the fullness of God:


And he [Moses] said, ‘I beg you, show me your glory.’ And God said: ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Eternal before you [...] but You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.’


Coming out of the encounter stronger

In this passage, God seems to me to be telling Moses, the greatest leader and the person who came closest to God, that even he cannot see or understand the fullness of God. This teaches me, or perhaps reinforces my own belief, that God is beyond all of us, and that all religions and worldviews are doing the best they can to understand the world in a way those people involved find compelling. We are all, therefore, holders of a piece of what is true, but none of us has it completely right. In holding this truth as central to my own religious life, understanding the other requires the humility of knowing my truth is for me, and their truth is for them. Ultimately, the real Truth is above and beyond all of us because we are limited humans, limited by our language, our lenses and experiences of life and living. Thus we must approach each other with humility and respect, and the knowledge that an encounter with the other always leaves us with a stronger sense of ourselves.