By Rabbi Rick Sherwin
There are two basic levels of interfaith experience.
The first focuses on what we share, the universal values we embrace that place us all within the framework of the human family. It begins with the revelation in the first chapter of Genesis: God created every human being in the Divine Image, male and female reflect that Image together. As Jews, we translate this verse into the extension of dignity to everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, physical abilities, mental capabilities, sexual orientation, and identity. We do not compromise ourselves by treating those who are different or who believe differently with dignity.
The second level of interfaith experience is based on the Talmudic teaching, Humanity and God are equal partners in transforming the world from the way it is to the way it needs to be. The Sages were careful to use inclusive language: it is not just the Jewish task to improve the world, but humanity’s. Needless to say, there are different ways to improve the world. We need to understand those with whom we disagree as we move forward towards a common goal.
On Shavuot, I shared the insight – based on the Hebrew – that God spoke the Ten Commandments (Decalogue) not to everyone together, but rather to each individual standing at Sinai according to her/his own emotions and sensitivities. Thus, the second focus of revelation is to understand that the people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai heard God’s words in different ways.
All too often, people offer simple answers and self-righteously dismiss all others as wrong. I take very seriously the teaching of the 20th-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin: Every difficult, complex problem – in politics, life, or thought – has a simple answer, and that answer is always wrong.
Throughout human history, Jews have been the anomaly to someone’s ‘absolute,’ and we have suffered for it. Today, Muslims, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, among others, also suffer at the hands of extremism and absolutism. Fundamentalism and simplistic moralism scares us, as well it should. We respond viscerally because whatever reduces truth to a simple absolute, reduces the dignity of others who are created in the Divine Image, and communities who might have heard the message differently.
At the conference I attended last month in Abu Dhabi with Muslims and Evangelical Christians, we all agreed that the concept of respectful human relationships is best reflected by the term “multi-faith” (which goes beyond “interfaith”) allowing for diversity to be an integral part of the strategy to reflect the Oneness of God by working together as One, each in our own way.
Rick Sherwin is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Longwood. He is a graduate of UCLA and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He energetically fills spiritual services and educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue and humor.