This week I was part of a challenging panel on whether it is, or is not, worthwhile to engage in inter-faith discussions and activities. I often ask myself what it is which makes me consider such involvement so important. I regard it not only as a legacy of my grandfather, but also of my teachers Rabbis Hugo Gryn and Dr Albert Friedlander, its resolute, and robust, proponents.
Inter-faith work is not at all about diluting the particularity of my Judaism. As I recently heard someone say in a different context, I may have been born Jewish as an accident of birth, but my soul, heart and mind resonate deeply to its music, teachings, values and laws. I’m reminded of how, according to family legend, I was once offered to choose from a huge box one chocolate which I liked: ‘But I love them all!’ I apparently replied. That’s broadly how I feel about the many facets of Judaism: ‘I love them all’.
No, inter-faith work is not part of an apology for being true to oneself. Its urgency, though, is for sure sharpened, for me and for many Jews, by the awareness that throughout history it is our people, probably more than any other, who have been made to pay, as the butt of ignorance, hatred and institutionally inculcated prejudice, the price in possessions, body and blood of the bigotry of others. It is this which brought Rabbi Gryn to the conclusion that ‘you can only be safe and secure in a society that practises tolerance, cherishes harmony and can celebrate difference’.
Hence there is a political dimension to inter-faith work. It is essential that faith and ethnic communities respect and appreciate the lives and traditions of other communities and share broad moral and civic values and goals. After all, we live in a world where it is impossible not to interact closely. I therefore agree with David Cameron’s insistence that if we speak of multiculturalism this must not be a form of lax relativism but a pluralism rooted uncompromisingly in the essential values of democracy: freedom, justice and equality. Hence, amidst the current global realities engagements with people of other faiths may be deeply inspiring but are also not rarely challenging, difficult and disturbing.
But this is not for me the end of the matter; I do not value encounters across the borders between faiths simply because they are a preventive necessity. They form part of my moral and spiritual search, and occasion encounters and friendships which enrich and inspire me.
In listening to the prayers and thoughts of others whose faith has led them to dedicate their lives to service, I have sometimes felt that I was being taken straight to the heart of the matter. Hearing a devoted Christian speak about care of the poor, I both respect and reflect on what he or she does, and turn to my own tradition and find such teachings at the heart of my Judaism. If someone were to say: ‘Do you really need inter-faith for that? Why not go straight to your own faith?’ my answer would be that this may be true. But often it is seeing the good in others and being touched by a universal sense of purpose which inspires us to go back home, sift the essential from the over-familiar or the peripheral in our own faith, and then do likewise. In meeting the other, I thus learn both about him or her, and about myself and whom I could or should be. Engagement with people of other faiths, in the context of a deep commitment to my own, thus further refines me, intellectually, morally and spiritually.
But most importantly of all, I hopefully also encounter something else as well: that deepest understanding which unites us, the call and inspiration of the universal God who inhabits all life and whose presence within it we are all required to honour, serve and cherish.
Sometimes even, habituated to the by-ways of our own faith, from its exaltation to its peccadillos, we almost fall into thinking that it is this itself we worship. Worst of all is when religious communities forget their purpose and become a form either of localised narcissism or of nationalist idolatry. Meetings with others beyond our own group remind us then of the all-encompassing, all challenging vastness and wonder of the one and living God, and recall to us our responsibilities here on earth.