It’s so very kind of you to arrange this Zoom hour with me – in particular, since the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the additional demands it has placed on me in my role as Rabbi has meant that I’ve not been able to attend executive meetings for several months.
I would like to say a few words about why I think Interfaith work is so important.
I don’t know whether I’ve ever told you this but it was an integral part of my five-year postgraduate training as a rabbi at Leo Baeck College in London, and included travelling to Germany twice a year for in-depth and intense eight-day Jewish Christian Muslim conferences.
In my view and on the basis of my experience, there are eight important dimensions to Interfaith encounter, all of which involve active engagement:
- Acknowledging and respecting our differences
- Caring – both, in the sense of caring for one another, and taking care in how we communicate with one another.
Let me say a little bit about what I mean by each of these dimensions of Interfaith encounter.
As we all know, listening is not the same as hearing – which is a physical capacity. Listening means paying attention. It means making space in one’s head to take in the experience of the other; what they are saying about themselves. So many of us have assumptions and projections about the other. Listening involves absorbing and processing what another person has to say about themselves in their own terms.
When we are engaging with people of other faiths, it’s so important that we don’t just listen, but are also prepared to speak and share our truths, our understandings, our experiences. If were not prepared to share and enable someone to listen to us, then encounter can’t take place. Of course, such sharing requires trust, mutual trust.
Giving is related to sharing, but unlike sharing, which can be motivated by our own needs, giving is usually a response to the needs of others, rather than the need to express ourselves. Giving requires generosity of spirit and a preparedness to forge, maintain and cherish relationships. It is an essential aspect of Interfaith encounter.
Some people who are prepared to give to the other, find it more difficult to receive from the other. But without the willingness to receive, giving can become a form of condescension. A fundamental component of Interfaith encounter has to be equality. That doesn’t mean that the parties to the encounter are treated equally in society at large. The experiences of someone who is part of majority culture are very different from those of someone who is part of a minority, in particular, a minority that has been subject to persecution and abuse. Nevertheless, for interfaith encounter to be a genuine exchange, we need to consciously meet one another as equals.
- Acknowledging and respecting our differences
When people of different faiths meet, there is often a powerful urge to look beyond our differences and find common ground. We want to look at the other and say, ’how wonderful, we are really the same’. Of course, it’s true. Thinking in religious terms, as we read in Genesis chapter 1 (:27), each human being is an image of God, and so we are essentially, the same. But our urge to look for similarities can often overlook important differences. Often, what we are doing is trying to find ourselves in the other; a reflection of ourselves, so the other feels less other, less alien. But when we do this, we are not so much encountering the other as trying to bolster up your own sense of ourselves. Perhaps the most important thing I have learnt from 37 years of interfaith work is to value the differences between us. The differences that make us who we are as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Pagans, and so on – and all the denominations within each faith or religious grouping. Interfaith encounter is successful when it enables us to acknowledge our differences and respect our differences while recognising our common humanity.
- Caring – both, in the sense of caring for one another, and taking care in how we communicate with one another
Caring for one another is so essential to interfaith encounter. If we don’t care one another then we won’t care to do the work of listening, sharing, giving, receiving, and acknowledging and respecting our differences. One of the loveliest things about the Brighton and Hove Interfaith Contact Group is the way that it has fostered a spirit of caring amongst those who participate in its activities; caring that manifests itself in a readiness to offer support and be there for one another. The other aspect of caring that is equally important and is actually fundamental to our capacity to care for one another is taking care in how we communicate with one another. Taking care in this way, encompasses the language we use, the way in which we refer to each other’s religions and faiths, and the way in which we talk about our own. For example, speaking from my own personal experience, when someone who is a Christian, talks to me about the ‘Old Testament’ rather than the ‘Hebrew Bible’ or the ‘Hebrew Scriptures’, however friendly they are to me, they demonstrate a lack of care.
When we can celebrate together, celebrate what we share and also celebrate our differences, then we know that we are engaged in a real encounter. The annual Interfaith service and other events that have been organised by the IFCG over the years are good examples of celebrating together.
People sometimes think about interfaith encounter as a quest for ‘understanding’. Of course, we may grow to understand one another, but that is an outcome of the work we do together. Interfaith work involves learning about one another. I’ve used the word ‘work’ a few times. In Hebrew, sacred work is spoken of in the language of service, Avodah. Interfaith encounter requires work; sacred service; avodah; service to one another, and ultimately, service to the Eternal that is within and beyond us.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Interfaith Contact group gathering via Zoom, 16 February 2021 – 5th Adar 5781