Rabbi David Gordis
Rabbi Gordis is a leading American Jewish scholar, and president of the Hebrew College, Boston. Here he speaks to Qalandar on prospects for Jewish-Muslim dialogue.
Qalandar – Yogi Skand
Q: What sort of inter-faith dialogue work have you been engaged in?
A: I was ordained as a rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, in 1964. JTSA is the central institution of the Conservative branch of Judaism, a movement which embraces the principle of the authority of halakhah, traditional Jewish law, but views it as a dynamic system which draws on the authority of revelation but views its continuing interpretation and development as both central and legitimate. I have spent my entire career in the service of the Jewish community, working in two principal areas: education and public policy. I have served as Professor of Rabbinics and Dean as well as vice president at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, California, an institution founded by the JTSA in the early 1950s, and as the Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Committee, a major national Jewish organization devoted to human rights and Jewish and American public policy issues. I established a national Jewish “think tank” called the Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies in 1988 in California. I continue to direct the Institute and moved its center to Boston when I arrived there in 1993 to assume the presidency and Professorship of Rabbinics at Hebrew College, an eighty-year-old institution of higher Jewish learning. Hebrew College has just established a Rabbinical School, the first “religious” program in the school which is an institution open to people of all faiths which specializes in all aspects of Jewish culture and civilization as opposed to offering specifically religious training.
I have been involved in interfaith activities since my student days when I participated in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Institute for Religious and Social Studies, an inter-religious graduate school program. In California, I served as vice-president of the Academy for Judaic, Christian, Islamic Studies, which held public “trialogue” conversations at universities as well as in synagogues, mosques and churches. I was co-author with Rev. Dr. George Grose and Imam Dr. Muzamil Siddiqi of a book called “The Abraham Connection, A Jew Christian and Muslim in Dialogue.” In Boston, I co-chaired with the Cardinal and Imam Talal Eid an Institute called the Archives for Historic Documentation, an off-shoot of the Harvard University Semitics Museum. Hebrew College recently built a new campus on land acquired from the Andover-Newton Theological School, the oldest independent Protestant Seminary in the United States. Hebrew College has a range of joint programs with ANTS. An important one, undertaken at my initiative, was the creation of the Interreligious Center on Public Life, whose purpose is the exploring of insights from Judaism, Christianity and Islam relating to matters of public policy, including such areas as human rights and bioethical issues.A number of inter-religious teaching activities go on, including a course in the Qu’ran for Hebrew College faculty taught by a Muslim Scholar. I am also a participant in the Boston College Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations.
Q: How do you see the question of dialogue while still respecting the autonomy of the religion of the other?
A: Dialogue only has meaning if it respects the autonomy of the other; absent that respect we have monologue. It is for each religious community, or those from each community who choose to participate in inter-religious conversation, to determine the terms under which he or she enters that conversation, the goals of the conversation and expectations from the process. True conversation may uncover areas of convergence but is most important in helping to understand areas of divergence. The question for participants is: Is that divergence threatening or problematical, or can it be a source of enlightenment and enrichment by broadening the perspectives and insights on the experience of being human that one gains from one’s own religious tradition.
Q: What role do social liberation and spirituality that transcends confessional borders have to play in your understanding of inter-faith dialogue?
A: All religious traditions embody visions of a world transformed into something better than its current reality. Certainly, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are teleological and “messianic” in that they look forward to an ultimate redemption. In Jewish tradition, human beings are known as God’s partners in the work of redeeming the world and shaping a better and transformed reality. In my view the highest forms of religious activity are to seek to relate to the transcendent dimension of human experience and to work to redeem the world. I try to respond to this religious calling out of my tradition and culture, but I seek partners for this work from people of other traditions who inspire me, teach me, and remind me of the need for humility, the reality that none of us can legitimately claim exclusive access to truth which is God’s alone. In my view the spiritual and social transformation experiences of others are vital to my own spiritual strength.
Q: How do you think it is possible for missionary religions to genuinely respect the ‘other’ without simply seeking to convert the ‘other’ to oneself?
A: While openness to others who seek to join a religious tradition and community is no problem, active missionizing makes inter-religious conversation difficult if not impossible. Missionizing implies relegating the tradition of the other to an inferior position. It embodies an arrogation of truth to one’s own tradition and therefore a rejection of the otherness of the other. Each religious individual, and our religious communities, must decide what is more important: to view the otherness of the other as part of God’s plan for the world from which we all can learn, or as a challenge and an affront which we are commanded to work to remove by attempting to transform the other into a copy of one’s self. Only the first attitude allows for genuine inter-religious conversation. The second makes it impossible.
Q: Dominant forms of religion often stress the externalities of the law and ritual over the inner spiritual core. What barriers or challenges do you think this poses to inter-faith dialogue?
A: While some interpretations of halakhah in Judaism or shari’a in Islam suggest that inter-religious conversation is forbidden, other interpretations reject this view, and adherents of these traditions have found ways of dealing with legal impediments to inter-religious conversation. In Jewish tradition, non-Jews are not obligated to observe the halakhah but only certain fundamental ethical values such as rejecting idolatry and incest, formulated as the “Noachide laws.”Life presents us with perceptions and experiences which sometimes appear to be, if not in conflict with one another, at least, in “tension” with one another. One of these “dyadic pairs” is independence-dependence. Our religious traditions and communities have separate histories and trajectories which have shaped powerful and impressive religious cultures and rich community life. But more than ever before, these independent religious communities and cultures must come to terms with the reality of the interdependence of all humanity. Prior to our identity as Jew, Christian or Muslim, prior to our identity as male or female, as Indian, British or American, is our fundamental human identity. Both the nobility and the tragedy of human experience are universal. They cross religious and national lines. This must be part of the religious insight and teaching of all religious traditions. Our very survival on this planet is dependent on our successfully navigating this dyadic pair.
Q: What sort of interactions have you had with Muslim groups, and what have their reactions been to your own inter-faith dialogue efforts?
A: Some of the most moving experiences of my life have come in the context of interacting with Muslims. I recall one of our trialogue programs at a mosque in California. A Muslim woman who was a member of the audience was in tears when she told me that she had not believed that such a program was possible and that if she had not known that I was a rabbi she would have thought she was hearing an Imam. I would often ask my colleague and friend Imam Siddiqi what he as a Muslim would like me to know and feel about Islam, knowing as he did that I was not going to embrace Islam as my faith. My friendships with Muslims (and Christians, for that matter) have been meaningful and nurturing (I hope for both sides) not in spite of our differences but precisely because of these differences. The principal challenge: See difference as a potential blessing and not as a problem and challenge.
Q: How do you see contemporary Jewish-Muslim relations and prospects for dialogue between the two?
A: The current state of Jewish-Muslim relations is mixed. There are serious efforts to build bridges of understanding and mutual respect in Israel, Europe and the United States, but political controversy, particularly over Israel-Palestine, compounded by continued violence and a lack of quality leadership on both sides, all contribute to a troubled relationship. While efforts to build human bridges must continue, so that the other is viewed as a person and not simply as a disembodied political adversary, our religious traditions themselves have a great responsibility in this area. Judaism and Islam must begin to teach a different view of the other than that which has characterized their teaching in the past. Instead of sustaining exclusive claims to truth and virtue, our religious leadership and educational institutions must attune their constituents and students to being able to hear, understand and respect competing narratives.
The past can not be undone, but a future must be constructed which is sensitive to these competing narratives, both of which are true! A two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue appears to be the only approach but the objective should not be isolating the two communities even if that is necessary for the moment to deal with violence and passions on both sides, but rather creating interrelationships, economic, social and cultural, which can be enriching and ennobling on both sides. Religious leadership has a major role to play in encouraging the respective communities to seek this resolution, which can not only ease the current catastrophic relationship, but which can bring us closer to the fulfillment of a redeemed world in which we can live together in mutual respect and be enhanced by the presence of the other.