Stepping Beyond Me - A Rabbi's Guest Post

Last month I wrote about addressing my own issues and biases before participating in reconciliation work. Relationships I’ve formed through interfaith dialogue have transformed me, such as this one.

A year ago, a local rabbi shared that he struggled with others who were critical of Israel. I was drawn to his story because it was very different from my traumatic experience in Lebanon, which had shaped my stereotypes of Israelis and Jews for that matter. I mustered my courage and asked him to meet with me. To my delight, he agreed.

As he shared about being a minority among the American Christian majority, his depth and authenticity came through. He explained what having a Jewish homeland meant to him personally and for his faith. I was profoundly struck by his statement, “If Christians took Jesus’ teachings seriously, they would be peacemakers in the Middle East. They are the only ones that can do it. “

This was a life-changing moment for me – it took someone from another religion to challenge me on my faith and my biases. Peacemaking is a command of Jesus, a part of Christian theology. Am I peacemaking and bringing people together? Am I capable of fostering reconciliation with both Palestinians and Israelis? To me it means, like Christ, to offer my presence and friendship. It means to stand with others in the midst of their pain, conflict, and isolation. As a Christian, I hope to have the privilege of standing with all people in this the conflict

My friend’s words and friendship impact me personally. We are different people from different backgrounds and lead different lives but it doesn’t matter to our friendship. I trust him. I know that he is for me and supports my work with Palestinians. His relationship also impacts my ministry and the direction of Beirut and Beyond. The Palestinians have a special place in my heart and I desire American Christians to understand the complications of their situation. And I must be willing to engage and understand Israelis and Jews, just as I have Palestinians, otherwise I can’t be a fair broker of peace. Because of his influence in my life, I have invited him to share a bit of his story with you. I hope his words change you as they have me. His wisdom and words deserve a wider audience. 

I’ve known Suzann for about a year and she recently invited me to share my thinking in her blog.  I’m a rabbi serving a Denver-based non-profit organization dedicated to helping under-engaged Jews connect more deeply to Judaism.  I’ve lived in Denver for ten years.

Suzann has written about how enriching it has been for her as a Christian to be in dialogue with me and to get to view her Christian faith through the eyes of a non-Christian.  As a Jew, I can say the exact same thing – how much my faith as a Jew has grown when I experience it through the perspective of a friend who is not Jewish.  That’s why I seek out opportunities for interfaith dialogue.  In fact, it was within a dialogue group of leaders from different faith traditions that Suzann and I first met. 

Suzann asked me to specifically reflect on the experience of being a minority.  Almost two thousand years ago Christianity began as a minority within the Jewish people.  Today the tables have turned.  In most of the world, Christians are the majority and Jews are the minority. 

Being a minority means that some of the things that are central to your way of seeing things aren’t reflected in the larger society: holidays, religious beliefs, ways of interpreting Scripture, ways of understanding what it means to be a human being.  For example, in this society Christmas is a legal holiday.  But the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur is not.  Many stores close on Easter.  But stores are all open on the Jewish holiday of Passover.  To be sure, a Jew can usually get off work for a Jewish holiday.  But they have to use their vacation days to do that. 

In some ways I’m not a minority.  I’m white, married, middle-class.  If you were to meet me, you’d assume that I was fully part of mainstream culture.  And in many ways I am.  But in a very important way, as a Jew in a Christian-majority society, I’m not.

Being a member of a minority religion means that I’ve often had to explain myself to a curious member of the majority.  Sometimes it’s meant that I needed to defend myself to a challenging member of the majority.  For example sometimes a Christian, assuming that Christmas is a universal holiday, will ask me how I celebrate Christmas, and I have to explain that Christmas is not my holiday.   Sometimes well-meaning Christians who want me to be saved because they want the best for me try to get me to believe in Jesus.  They don’t understand that as a Jew I have another powerful salvation narrative that orients me to the blessings of life and fills my soul. 

And sometimes Christians have approached me with the belief that my people had some kind of special responsibility for Jesus’ death.  Needless to say, when you carry that kind of story about another person, it’s hard to find out who they are from their own perspective.  And I’ve found that it’s only when you drop a projection about another person and really get to know them and how they see the world that you get to become friends.

One feature of being a member of a minority is that you need to be aware of the majority culture if you want to thrive in that culture.  Consequently you know that your way isn’t the only way.   And one of the benefits of that is that you get to see yourself through another culture’s eyes.  You get to learn things about yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t.  You get to grow.

 Conversely, one of the features of being a member of the majority culture is that you don’t have to know about minority cultures in order to make your way in society.  Consequently it is natural to believe that your way is the way.

 My desire here is not to write anything that may be read as critical of Christianity.  As a rabbi, that’s not my place.  I’ve got enough in Judaism to keep me busy for the rest of my life.  I’m writing here at Suzann’s invitation and I accepted the privilege with gratitude and respect to her faith tradition and to you.

 But what I want to say is that when you engage in dialogue with someone who has a different religious perspective than yours, then whole worlds can open up and your own faith can be enriched.  This has certainly been my experience.  And Suzann has told me that it’s been hers as well.  What about you?