“Dialogue” is the watchword in defining relations between Jews and peoples of other religions, particularly in North America’s environment of religious pluralism. The emphasis on dialogue comes as a result of years of hard work on the part of religious leaders and a growing concern about religious intolerance that has continued to brew and cause turmoil throughout the world.
Leaders from the Catholic Church, for example, take a proactive role in seeking dialogue with Jewish leaders. Since the Vatican II decision of the 1960s formally ending the Catholic belief that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death, Catholic leaders such as Pope John Paul II have attempted to change their relationship with Jewish people. All major archdiocese include specific offices of interreligious affairs, in which a team of priests, nuns, and educators work with members of clergy from the Jewish (and other) faiths. These offices often play a key role in helping to create annual community-wide Holocaust memorial services on Yom Hashoah (Day of Holocaust commemoration).
Jewish leaders, too, are taking an active role in facilitating dialogue with other religious groups. In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, many Jewish leaders, along with their Christian peers, acknowledged an ignorance or misunderstanding of the Muslim religion. Chapters of the American Jewish Committee have facilitated Jewish-Muslim dialogues in conjunction with their Islamic peers. Many Jewish religious schools have added a class on Jewish-Muslim relations to their roster of high school courses. Perhaps most moving, however, were the number of synagogues in metropolitan areas who came forward to volunteer their services to walk members of local mosques to their cars after the 9/11 attacks, when anti-Muslim rage was spreading.
These dialogues and attempts at understanding are but rays of hope in the darkness; they do not take away the layers of misunderstanding and distrust that exist between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and around the world. The same goes with Jewish-Christian dialogue: After two millennia of persecution, the past is not forgotten or abandoned easily. Tensions remain between Jews and Christians, but dialogue has replaced violence as the means to air these differences.
There are other faith groups in which Jews are finding connections on a spiritual level. Many Jews see Buddhism as a place to find spiritual resonance in today’s world. Roger Kamenetz’s popular book The Jew in the Lotus chronicles his journey–along with a group of Jewish educators and clergy–to dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Spiritual teacher Sylvia Boorstein, author of Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, teaches workshops based on her personal experience of using her Buddhist practice to enhance her connections as a Jew. While some Jewish religious leaders feel both concerned and betrayed by the rise of these so-called “Ju-Bus,” others embrace the commonality between Jewish and Buddhist spiritual expression and appreciate the interest in meditation and contemplation–an often-neglected part of Jewish tradition–that has returned as a result.
Many interfaith dialogues raise serious theological concerns. Leaders of America’s burgeoning evangelical Christian community are great supporters of the State of Israel–and many Jewish leaders welcome their support at a time when it often feels that public opinion weighs unfairly against Israel. However, many Jews are uncomfortable with the evangelical belief that Jews returning to Israel foreshadows the Messiah’s second coming–and the Jews’ conversion to Christianity. Dialogue with the Christian right–especially those who support Israel–causes disagreement and dissent among Jewish leaders today.
Despite the emphasis on dialogue, however, anti-Semitism, of course, persists among people of many religions. In some Middle Eastern countries, newspapers are filled with anti-Jewish cartoons and articles; in France, violence against Jews has increased dramatically since the beginning of the Second Intifada in Israel in 2000; Israeli academics have been barred from European conferences because of their status as veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces; and in North America, Jewish and pro-Israel groups have faced hostility for publicizing their views on college campuses.
Still, the organized Jewish community in North America and elsewhere makes dialogue a priority with other religious groups. Working with members of other religions–whose past history and sometimes present relations are not always ones of respect and trust–requires from both sides an open mind and a willingness to listen. Interfaith relations have come a long way since the mid-1900s but those involved in interreligious dialogue acknowledge their task is far from complete.