Reflections on Interfaith Dialogue: My Recent Experience at Gordon College

Less than a month ago, I had the opportunity to be one of four national rabbinic scholars who spoke on the Psalms and their relevance for us today at Gordon College. For members of my community who are unfamiliar with this program, every year Gordon College produces a series of talks given by Jewish scholars from all around the country. As an evangelical school, Gordon College is a strong advocate for better Jewish and Christian relations. I must say it was a most memorable experience. While I was there, I met with the faculty, as well as with many classes of students where we engaged one another on the importance of interfaith dialogue in a society that has traditionally kept themselves apart from one another for centuries. True, Jews and Christian leaders do work on cooperative ventures, e.g., social issues, but seldom has there been an honest exchange where leaders speak honestly about the issues that have traditionally divided both our communities.

During the week I spent with the students and the local churches, I wanted to give a personal narrative how I came to embrace interfaith dialogue with the Christian as well as Muslim communities. True, there are many obstacles that face us all, but we have a duty to reach out. Rabbi Tarfun, a first century sage, expressed the thought best, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it” (Avot 2:21).

In my discussions, I maintain that it is essential for us to be honest with one another and speak about the historical mistakes each side has made over the ages. As with any family conflict, there are two sides of the story. Unfortunately, the family break-up of the Jewish and Christian communities that took place in the early centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple might have spared us centuries of anti-Semitic attacks; Jewish leaders were no less pluralistic then they are now; once the Jewish community threw out the Jewish-Christians from their synagogues, the seeds for revenge were sown for millennium that followed. Frankly, we can see many of the same intolerant attitudes threatening to split world Jewry today emanating out of the ultra-Orthodox circles in Israel today.

Now, in this turbulent period of world history, I believe it is vital that Jews and Christians cultivate a new respect for one another. Christians need to acknowledge the “Jewishness” of Jesus, while rabbis today need to re-vision their view of Jesus as a first century sage who tried his best to unite a divided Jewish world, but failed in his lifetime to achieve his vision.

In our own community, Allan Ross, Rabbi Henry Karp, and myself, have tried to keep the bridges of understanding strong with the liberal and evangelical communities. Of course this can be a rocky road at times, where each faith can make a mistake every now and then, but in the final analysis, we need to create an atmosphere of tolerance. Israel does not have a lot of friends right now, and we need to cultivate support by being respectful of our Christian brethren. Such a model between the Jewish and Christian community can better serve as an example for Jewish and Muslim dialogue as well. Locally, I have met with Fr. Michael Schwab, Iman Saad Baag, and Rev. Quay in opening new directions that will help serve as a response to those extremists who would love nothing more than to keep our house divided, rather than united.

I realize that some of us may not appreciate the implications of such peaceful and soulful encounters; however, I think it is vital that we try to create a community that can serve as a model for others. The Quad-Cities need not be a microcosm of what is wrong with the world; rather, we can provide a marvelous example of what it means stand together, united in our faith in an ethical and moral God.

Michael 2009 symposium

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