Is it only useful when it’s about issues of mutual interest, or are deeper theological conversations possible now that ties aren’t characterized by coercion and violence?
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation, Toronto
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow
Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal
Rabbi Grushcow: This month, we honour our docents at our temple. They run a program that welcomes approximately 2,500 students to the temple each year. Most of them are francophone, and none of them are Jewish. For many, it’s their first time in a synagogue.
Also this spring, I’m doing a sermon exchange with a young Protestant minister as well as a Catholic priest, and going to Vancouver to speak at a conference on religion in a secular world. These activities remind me how important interfaith work has always been to my congregation and the Reform movement.
What role does interfaith dialogue play for you and your synagogue?
Rabbi Korobkin: Interfaith work has historically been a double-edged sword for the Jewish People. Such dialogue was often forced upon our people and resulted in exile, pogroms and worse. That is why an aversive attitude persists to this day in our community.
I applaud your efforts at educating non-Jewish children about Judaism and the Jewish community. This can only help stem the tide of anti-Semitism, and I have done the same. Doing pulpit exchanges with Christian counterparts, on the other hand, is where we’d have to part ways. For one thing, traditional Judaism restricts entering a church for any reason. Secondly, discussions of theology and the details of each other’s faith is the one area that we have found to be counterproductive, and even at times dangerous.
We find dialogue most useful when we can discuss issues of mutual interest, such as neighbourhood security, Israel, and caring for the poor and vulnerable in our communities. These efforts deserve mutual respect and co-operation, since we can accomplish so much more when working together.
Rabbi Grushcow: I think we need to differentiate between coerced medieval disputations and modern interfaith dialogue. The restrictions you speak of are based on an entirely different time and place. When we enter interfaith dialogue now, we do so as equal and willing partners.
I agree that there are many good things we can do together outside an explicitly religious or theological context. For example, our temple takes part every year in an interfaith eco-action project, in which members of different religious groups team up to clean neighbourhoods in Montreal.
At the same time, I don’t think we need to shy away from deeper encounters.
The traditional restrictions on entering a church or engaging in theological conversations come from an era when the church had life-and-death powers over Jews, and the relationship between us was characterized by coercion and violence. That is no longer the case.
When I speak in a church or invite a Christian clergyperson into our synagogue, we learn from each other’s insights into our shared sacred texts. We gain a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences in our belief and practice, and through this, we gain mutual respect. Talking about God with Christians is not threatening. My belief system is strong enough that I can engage in conversation without worrying about conversion, and our dialogue partners don’t proselytize. My religious life would be poorer without our conversations.
Rabbi Korobkin: We can only grow through deeper understanding of each other’s faith. But there’s nothing “medieval” about persecutions and blood libels that are based on anti-Semitic theology. The Mendel Beilis blood libel in Russia, for example, was only a century ago. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is experiencing a resurgence in popularity throughout the world.
Soon, you and I will start our seders with, “This is the bread of our affliction… Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Some scholars understand that the historical basis of this invitation is to dispel the blood libels that were recurring throughout Jewish history. “Here’s our matzah,” we are saying. “There’s no Christian blood, and you can see and taste it for yourself!” Indeed, as Easter coincides with Pesach, whole sections of the seder liturgy may be understood as polemics against those who have accused the Jews of having killed their lord.
So, while I agree that we thankfully don’t have to fear our Christian counterparts anymore and agree that one can certainly gain from the ecumenical dialogue of which you speak, I also feel, as George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”