I was the only Jew present at my first meeting of "Thinking Together," the World Council of Churches' think tank on cutting edge issues in interfaith dialogue. For half of the four-day meeting in 2007, I had struggled with powerful reactions to many of the things group members, particularly the Christian theologians present, had to say about conversion, the group's current topic of discussion. Over and over again, my mind shouted, "Do you guys know what it is like to be on the receiving end of Christian conversionary activity?" "Do you know that when you say, 'mission,' this touches my deep memory of the persecution, exile and genocide that my people has suffered?"
By the end of the meeting, I had learned that these people did indeed know a great deal about the Jewish experience at the hands of Christians. In fact, several of the people at the table had written renowned books on the subject. What is more, some of the Hindus at the table had even more recent reason than I did, as a Jew, to associate conversion with destruction of communities and cultures. I learned that in recent years there has been a great deal of tension, and some violence, related to the aggressive activity of Christian missionaries in Hindu communities. By the end of the week, I had learned far more from these people than they had to learn from me.
This summer I was joined by an old friend, a renowned Jewish educator from Israel, and a long-time participant in the group. No longer the only Jew in the room, free of my internal need to convey "the Jewish perspective," I was open to whatever learning this year's meeting would bring.
As before, I was struck by my good fortune to be sitting with this remarkable group of people. There was a senior Jewish educator from Jerusalem, a progressive imam and Islamic scholar from South Africa, a Buddhist professor of conflict resolution from Thailand, a professor of Hinduism from India and Trinidad, a senior leader of the Presbyterian Church in the US, an internationally known Christian scholar and leader of the interfaith dialogue movement, and a Buddhist monk and scholar from Sri Lanka wearing bright orange robes, among others. I knew that the experience would further develop my identity as a citizen of the world, expanding my perspective and stretching my heart and mind. This happened, though, in a surprising way.
Since the topic was conversion, we expected that challenging moments might arise in conversation between the proselytizing religions represented at the table (i.e. Christianity and Islam) and those religions that tend not to seek converts aggressively (i.e. Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism). To our surprise, this year our attention was drawn to a different fault line in the group, the differences between those who consider themselves monotheists and those coming from traditions that are not theistic, or emphasize multiple manifestations of the Divine.
In my opening remarks on Jewish perspectives on conversion, I had sought to articulate why seeking converts has not been a prominent part of Jewish practice over the centuries. I emphasized that Judaism does seek to serve as a "light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6), but that this is about bringing the world to God and to justice, not about persuading the peoples of the world to adopt the particularities of Jewish practice. In the course of exploring that point, I cited beloved texts that are central to my own prayer life, such as, "On that day God will be one and God's name one." (Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the Aleinu prayer)
When I finished my introductory talk to the group, my Hindu colleague, Anant Rambachan, offered some appreciative words about what I had said. Then, very gently, he said that my remarks on bringing people to the one God and my reference to the prayer for the recognition of God's oneness were difficult for him. "Such texts," he said, "remind me of times when, growing up in Trinidad, people would break into our Hindu temples and destroy the murti (sacred images)."
Anant is an elegant man, brilliant and gracious, and he commands great respect and love in the group. The room fell utterly silent as he spoke. I, for one, was mortified that I had said something that had been offensive to someone whom I hold in such high esteem. I rushed to tell him that I was sorry to have offended him, that that had certainly not been my intention. He made clear that he had taken no personal offense, but we all realized that something important had happened. We had encountered a profound difference between the self-described monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, on the one hand, and Hinduism, on the other, with its rich teachings of the many different names and manifestations of the Divine in the world. And the monotheists at the table were forced to confront the ways in which belief in one God can convince people that theirs is the only truth, and to make this a rationale for hurting the other.
For me, this was a stunning moment. In my work life, I have spent a good deal of time and energy seeking to help Christians understand that some of the ideas, language, and images that are most precious to them resonate very differently for Jews, evoking memories of many centuries of oppression. I have asked Christians to examine their liturgy and their sacred texts, and to try to take the empathic leap of imagining how these might seem to Jews. As an heir to the profound Jewish historical memory of persecution (and worse), I have argued that Christians have a responsibility to look self-critically at their own tradition and history, to see how it has done harm, and to consider the implications for Christian practice in our own day.
Suddenly, my own religious language – words that I have known since I was a small child and recited daily for decades, was a source of pain to another, who had himself been on the receiving end of religiously motivated violence. The concept of monotheism lies at the epicenter of Jewish tradition and Jewish self-understanding. How could this concept possibly be a source of harm to others? Yet here was my treasured colleague, challenging me to contemplate the damage that had been done in the name of my own cherished belief.
These were the very moments for which the "Thinking Together" project was created. Moments when each of us might enter into an entirely new understanding of our own tradition by seeing it through the eyes of "the other." In relationship with people of different religions and from different parts of the world, we are forced to consider hitherto unimaginable questions. Our relationships of respect and affection lead us to examine unthinkable thoughts, considering our most treasured convictions from multiple perspectives, seeing our own worldview as only one among many imperfect human attempts to make sense of a world far beyond our own understanding.
In such moments, one does have another option. One can say, explicitly or implicitly, "No! I am right and so you must be wrong! My truth is correct and I have no intention of considering your perspective on it!" After all, we see this kind of behavior modeled every day in the public square in our own country, and perhaps in our personal relationships as well.
But for thoughtful people who desire to understand more about God's world and to respond to the sacred call to make peace in our world, we must listen to "the other," even when he or she challenges beliefs that are axiomatic for us.
Having experienced this conversation, what is my obligation? Do I need to stop saying the offending words in my daily prayer? Reconstruct my whole theology to excise monotheism from my beliefs about God and the world? I don’t think this is my obligation, nor did my conversation partners at the table in Geneva want me to abandon my own religion in deference to their feelings. But it is incumbent on me to take in the depth of their challenge, bringing new questions into my ongoing relationship with Judaism based on my relationship with them.
Fundamentally, this is how individuals can contribute to the building of peace in the world: by our willingness to listen deeply to truths very different from our own, to grapple with these truths and allow them to affect how we think and who we are, to stretch our minds and hearts beyond our own comfortable truths. This is the essence of peace-making, of world-repair, one conversation at a time.