Saturday, February 06, 2016

Ushering in the Super Bowl with Some Interfaith Dialogue

On several dozen occasions over the past seven years, I’ve helped to coordinate public dialogues between Jews and Muslims.  The dialogues have involved a wide range of subjects, including both what divides these two communities and what unifies them.   We’ve talked about theology, the Israel/Palestine Conflict, what it means to be a minority group in America, the Prophets, gender roles … you name it, we have discussed it.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these discussions over the years, not only because they have helped me get to know a cousin faith more intimately but also because the experience has made me a more knowledgeable and committed Jew. 

Tomorrow, aka Super Bowl Sunday, my organization, the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS), will hold its next dialogue.   As you can see from going to, which provides the precise time and venue of the event, the session is entitled “The Future of Judaism, the Future of Islam.”    While the Panthers and the Broncos will be psyching themselves up for the Big Game later in the day, we at JIDS will be awash in out-and-out speculation … and not the kind that makes anyone money.  Nobody really knows what the future will bring, and some might even question the point of asking the question, but it is precisely my Jewishness that makes me find this topic especially compelling.  To be Jewish is to be both a serious student of the past and an impassioned dreamer about the future.   We don’t dream about the “hereafter” in Heaven.  We dream about the hereafter on Earth – both when we’re old and when we’re gone.  No less than the Christians, who pine for their Messiah, we pine for ours, even if we take the Messianic concept to be purely metaphorical.  Surely, we say to ourselves, there must be a time in the future when the killing has ended, human dignity is universally affirmed, and greed has given way to generosity.  We call that the “Messianic age.”   But in my strand of Judaism, you don’t wait for supernatural support to bring it about; you commit your life to bringing it about through your own conduct and through the conduct of those who you touch.  That, perhaps more than anything else, is what it means to me to a committed, progressive, religious Jew.

At tomorrow’s JIDS meeting, we have two Muslim speakers and two Jewish speakers.  I’ve had an opportunity to talk to both Muslim speakers about the event, and before the conversations started, I had only one request: “Please don’t spend the whole time talking about ‘extremism,’ ‘radicalism,’ or whatever other term is being used for the insanity that has been spreading across large swaths of the Middle East during the past decade.” 

 As someone who has been blessed with the opportunity to learn about the rich tapestry of Islam, I get so tired of the media’s obsession with only a single dimension – the Muslim’s attitude about violence.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear there were only two types of Muslims: violent lunatics (aka “Muslim radicals”) and normal, sane people (aka “Muslim moderates”).   To me, reducing Muslims in this way makes little more sense than dividing Jews into two categories based on whether or not we are cheap, greedy, money-grubbers.  How I wish the glib talking-heads on both sides of the political spectrum who frequently wax eloquent about the relationship between Islam and violence would shut their mouths, read the Qur’an (with commentary!), browse some Hadiths, and allow themselves to be inspired by the wealth of Islamic philosophy, liturgy, and culture.  Maybe then they will have the standing to pontificate in front of millions of people about what Islam represents today.
As for those of us in JIDS who have already gone through that exercise, it will be fun to dream about what Islam – meaning the whole tapestry, not just the stuff about war and peace -- might become in the future. 

The Jewish speakers at tomorrow’s event will be one of the area’s leading rabbis and one of my daughters (a fourth-year Rabbinical student).   These two speakers come from two different movements in what is commonly known as liberal or progressive Judaism.   I have no idea what either of them will be talking about, but I am well aware of some of the recent trends that have caused so many people to worry about the fate of non-Orthodox Judaism.  My suspicion is that both of the Jewish speakers will not ignore these trends, but that they will envision a future for liberal Judaism that gains in quality what it loses in quantity.   In other words, rather than bemoaning the likelihood that intermarriage, assimilation, and overall societal secularization is likely to thin the herd of liberal Jews, those who remain in the fold may be far more intense about their faith than their ancestors who were Baby Boomers or Millennials.  The Reform or Conservative synagogues of the future may not be as plentiful or as large, but I’m guessing that they’ll be a lot more spiritual and dynamic. 

Then again, that’s just a guess.  Just like it’s a guess that Carolina will beat Denver 27 – 20.  The great thing about NFL football is that you never know who’s going to win, and the great thing about tomorrow’s JIDS meeting is that none of us will know which of the speakers will turn out to be right.  Everyone will just have to listen with an open mind and say “Hmmm.  Maybe so.”   And that’s the attitude we need if we wish to be a true intellectual.   You may know the cliché that “mean people suck,” but I say that closed-minded people are nearly as annoying, and just as dangerous.

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