Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Interfaith Movement

The two parts of my psyche- or perhaps of my soul- are warring again.

There's an organization called the IFYC, otherwise known as the Interfaith Youth Core. A female student at Brandeis who is Jewish and attended North Shore Country Day School with me is the one who alerted me to its existence. She and her fellow IFYC fellows are passionate, caring people who truly want to change the world and create a place of unity, togetherness, tolerance and understanding. They've put together a beautiful video you can watch below.

On one level, I think this initiative is beautiful. It's great that people from different backgrounds, religions and spiritual traditions are trying to work together in creating a less fragmented, more appreciative world. On her blog, Erica (that's my friend) tells over a beautiful story that illustrates the ways in which respect for different religious traditions can lead to wonderful results.

On the other hand, I feel deeply uncomfortable when I watch this video. There's a strong emotional response on my part that says: no. The question becomes: what is it that I'm saying no to?

And I think it's like this. I think there's a dramatic difference between respecting people's life choices, religious decisions and beliefs inasmuch as we don't express hatred or violence toward them due to these and deciding that religion must change itself to fit our cultural norms. I don't think that respect means that all of our religious differences should or must be embraced, nor must they all be tolerated. As a Jewess, I do believe in an absolute truth and I believe that Judaism is it. I also think that there is a great deal of spirituality and beauty in other faith traditions and admire them but I wouldn't want to incorporate them into my tradition, change or modify my tradition or otherwise agree that certain tenets of my religious tradition are outdated. For example, in today's world, being open about one's sexuality (and/or homosexuality) is embraced. I imagine that Judaism would be criticized within this IFYC culture for its strong stance that homosexual activity is forbidden by God and I would be told to be open to all sexual diversity. Now, I can respect people who happen to be gay, but I will not accept that my religious tradition ought to change to fit the Western culture of our time.

It also troubles me that many of the fellows in the film are not necessarily the most learned in what their faith truly entails. Of the Jews represented, are any of them Orthodox? Do any of them believe in a Bible that came from God rather than one formed by a Redactor? How can you really serve as a representative of your faith when you are following a modified version of your faith to begin with? This isn't to say I don't respect Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal or other devotees of different affiliations of Judaism. I just wonder what it means to represent a faith if you yourself don't understand many of the tenets of that faith- or understand them only inasmuch as your professor has explained J,P,D and E to you.

In short, I am troubled by this movement and this video representation. I think it is beautiful a la Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks' The Dignity of Difference. And yet I also wonder whether it is possible to remain part of an interfaith organization without compromising your own standards or indeed, your religious values. I, for example, while more than willing to learn from others with different faiths, would not be interested in raising money to fund a Jewish LGBT program. That would be deeply uncomfortable for me. And so I wonder whether one can truly serve as an IFYC fellow without comprising their identity- especially if they are observant or Orthodox- as a religious person, and in my case, as an Orthodox Jew.


The Cousin said...

Brief though on your post. Without having watched the video, and merely reading your reporting, this sounds almost classic "Brandeisian" (yes, that's an accepted word!)

You must take the following into account: that by and large, Brandeis is a very politically liberal environment with a focus on the concept of "social justice".
[What constitutes "social justice" is a whole separate conversation]
This group and its objectives fit almost lockstep with the theme of "social justice".

All that said, I don't think there will too large of a student participation in this type of event. By and large, much of the student body finds their own ways to interact with individuals of other faith's (namely looking beyond religion).

I say this as a Brandeis Alum who loved his time at the University and still thinks very highly of it

Larry Lennhoff said...

It seems unfair to complain on the one hand that there is no O representation in a group and then on the other hand say that you couldn't bring yourself to join such a group. This is even truer when we take into account that no one to the right of Open Orthodoxy permits involvement in interfaith dialog when the topic is religion or theology. (It may be that this restriction only applies to rabbis, not ordinary Jews, but that leads us immediately back to the 'not educated' criticism.

Wingate said...

This video seems populated by people of many theological backgrounds who all believe in either platitudes or leftism. I realize that sounds like a harsh thing to say about people who only want to do nice things..... but IMO that's the problem.

They want to accomplish indeterminate nice stuff like "bring people together", "end poverty" or "solve global warming". And what does religion have to do with any of this? Evidently nothing....since they all believe in the same things irrespective of their religions.

So....every religion leads people to the same beliefs??? Uh.... not in the real world. But at the interfaith fellowship....sure, why not.

To me videos like this offer the strongest support for R. Soloveitchik's disapproval of interfaith theological dialogue -- different religions' different existential beliefs about the purpose of man, existence itself, and pressing moral issues seem to have all been blended down into a vanilla shake of bromides about being a good person.

Set aside Orthodox Jews for a sec -- I don't see how any thoughtful person committed to an existential belief structure could stand to be in a group like this for more than a meeting or two. I'd much rather be part of a debating society where people with different moral, philosophical and religious beliefs had verbal fencing matches over serious issues.

Anonymous said...

The important thing about interfaith dialogue need not be for indeterminate purposes like embracing other religions, or social justice. It is important because it is a Kiddush Hashem to teach people about Judaism and make them appreciate it and understand it. I think that the more non-Jews understand Jews, the more that Jews will be able to live in peace.

Anonymous said...

The important thing about interfaith dialogue need not be for indeterminate purposes like embracing other religions, or social justice
N.B. substitute can for need, add "The important thing about interfaith dialogue should be for specific purposes outlined by The Rav in Confrontation" available here:

joel rich

Yosh said...

It's also disturbing because it reflects a general weakening of belief in any kind of absolute meaning. It takes a lot of spiritual "confidence" (for lack of a better word) to stand up and say "this is RIGHT" and that has eroded. The commonly accepted religion right now is shrugging and saying "meh, who knows, but this does it for me."

We live under a tyranny of soft agnosticism.

Anonymous said...

How can I put this nicely, the people who tend to migrate towards "interfaith" movements are those who have no strong faith of their own.

These events yield the fruit of "compromise", but when dealing with what a certain group or religion sees as truth then how can that truth be compromised? It cannot be. It can be tarnished, sullied, mellowed to the point of it becoming an "untruth", but it cannot be succesfully compromised.

Now, if you (as a devotee of your religion) truly love and respect your friends of different faiths then you should try to familiarize them with your own. This is, of course, if you truly believe in your religion. Why leave those you care about in the dark?

It's not a question of seeking common ground or of working towards a mythical concensus, it's a matter of finding and leading others towards what we belive to be THE truth. That is what true friends do right? They help each other along. That cannot occur by meshing cultures and faiths.

And, no, that is not something which can be legislated, mandated, or arbitrarily negotiated into existence.

A bland faith leads to no faith, is that what the "faithful" want?

Larry Lennhoff said...

Is anonymous completely unaware of the existence of religions that don't claim universal applicability? Unitarian Universalism, for one, accepts that it is not the only path approved by God. In fact one may be both a UU and belong to another religion as well (at least from the UU perspective.)

Judaism itself is a dual covenant religion, with Jews by birth and conversion subject to the Mosaic covenant, while the rest of the world is subject to the covenant of Noah. Chazal say "The righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come." So when I chat with my Islamic co-worker I feel no need to persuade him to adopt Judaic beliefs.

Anonymous said...

If anon. 2:50 is the one you are adressing, then:

In referring to Judaism's dual covenants, you miss the essential point.

If your Islamic, Buddist, Catholic, agnostic, etc. co-worker is ignorant of the Noahide laws how can s/he ever know to abide by them, and thus, become one of the righteous? Neither of these covenants of Judaism are found in other religions (perhaps Christianity is excluded). The "laws for the nations" are not known among the nations and are useless to the nations if they don't know.

Secondly, the element of "universal applicability" is really moot here. The question seemed to be "finding a place for all viewpoints". I don't think its possible for most ardent Jews, Christians, Moslems, etc. to excuse important tenets of their faiths in order to blend (without being bland) successfully. The UU notwithstanding.

And finally, If we can openly and honestly believe and say that G-d is One. That leads to a very "universally applicable" result. And, you know as well as I do that Torah wasn't intending that He was one of many.

Anonymous said...

Jewish atheist said, "Considering that the overwhelming majority of Jews are not Orthodox and are (genuinely) liberal...".

What does that prove or mean? I don't recall G-d or Moses ever initiating a theological democracy.

If a majority of those who have Jewish ancestry choose to call black as white, or africa as asia, or pork as kosher it doesn't make it so.

If my friends knew something which I didn't I'd certainly want them to tell me. And, I would also make up my own mind as to the veracity of the info. presented.

Jewish Atheist said...

My point was that non-Orthodox Jews are much more representative of Judaism as a whole. I know the Orthodox like to pretend that Orthodox Judaism is the only "real" Judaism, but that's nonsense. You guys are like the modern karaites that refuse to update your worldview when presented with new facts.

Anonymous said...

Jewish Ath.,

Again, your viewpoint of the superiority of non-Orthodox "truths" found among the majority is exactly that, a viewpoint and not a verifiable fact unto which all must defer.

And, to get back on topic, Chana's article was on inter-faith dialog.

If you review the comments in this thread you'll see the UU "witnessed" of, liberalism promoted, but not much exaltation of the derech Yehudi. So, inter-faith seems alive and well here.

Finally, can an atheist truly take part in an inter-faith dialog when s/he has no diety to place faith in? ;)

In the spirit of ecumenical inclusiveness I could wish you a Merry Christmas, but I suppose that wouldn't work for you either.

Rachel said...

Chana, I have a question about the following quote from your post: "I, for example, while more than willing to learn from others with different faiths, would not be interested in raising money to fund a Jewish LGBT program. That would be deeply uncomfortable for me."

In your earlier writings, you came across as being more open to helping increase tolerance for LGBT Jews. Has that changed?

Chana said...


Tolerance and outright support for funding of Jewish LGBT synagogues or meeting groups seem different to me. I think that tolerance and compassion for the struggle a person is going through assuming they are gay and working through that while trying to also maintain their religiosity is mandated. I don't agree with the gay pride ideal, however, which legitimizes the lifestyle and denies the element of struggle with faith/ religion.

Sam said...

>Again, your viewpoint of the superiority of non-Orthodox "truths" found among the majority is exactly that, a viewpoint and not a verifiable fact unto which all must defer.

Does the same go for your viewpoint, or is that different?

Anonymous said...


There is a certain foundation from which our faith arises. That foundation is not "my viewpoint" or my creation.

There is only one G-d.

Moses was His chosen instrument to bring us Torah.

The Torah is sacred.

A child of a Jewish woman is Jewish (whether s/he likes it or not).

A child of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman isn't Jewish (without undergoing conversion) no matter how much of a tsadik that man may otherwise have been.

As you know, the list can go on.

We have the ability to learn and to grow within the confines of biblically established tenets. Actually, we have an obligation to learn and grow therein.

But, on what basis can one just start making up dogma as we go in order to suit oneself?

A faith with arbitrarily instituted tenets based on little more than someone's daily mood swings can be nothing more than a work of fiction.

Man's willingness or unwillingness to alter or ignore Torah is irrelavent to its overridding eternal truth. So, in that regard we are all in the same boat.

The Torah of G-d, as given by Moses, will be here long after all of us and our temporary opinions are gone.

Yes, that is my viewpoint, but it is my viewpoint because it is the viewpoint of the Torah. And, so far, Torah has stood the test of time.

I'm sure you are aware that all throughout the history of Israel people have been reconstructing, reforming, atheisting (is that a word?;)), and conserving (the vestiges of) the biblical way to best suit themselves.

What has become of such groups? Their progeny continued upon the paths away from scripture and eventually became assimilated into the nations and other religions.

You just cannot bend something which is created to be rigid very far without breaking it.

And, that has been an observed verifiable result throughout history, and as you may know, an observed verifiable fact in science is more than just viewpoint...

Sam said...

So, that sounded more or less like, yes, mine is different. Ok.

Belief that a truth is absolute is not the same as belief that your knowledge of it is absolute.

Anonymous said...


Well said. I'll be the first to admit that I don't have absolute knowledge.

I'll also add that we've all got a long way to go, but we need to stay on the previously laid out road in order to get there.

And, there is more than enough room for dicourse and differing opinion within the width of that road.

Erica Hope said...

Hey Chana!

Thanks for noticing my interfaith work, it means a lot to me! You brought up lots of interesting points. I had way to much to say so instead of writing a really long comment, I posted something on the Brandeis Interfaith blog. Anyone can read it here and I would love to hear your thoughts:


I would like to clarify one point in your blog here, however. You used the example of donating to a Jewish GLBT organization. Was this referring to Brandeis' and Brandeis Hillel's decision to fundraise for Keshet as part of our response to Westboro Baptist Church?

If so, I want to clarify that this had nothing to do with IFYC. The only connection between the two is that I am an IFYC fellow and I am also separately on the executive board of Hillel, which played a role in selecting the charity. While I personally deeply supported this decision, I do not want it to create a negative association with IFYC for you and your readers.

In my opinion, this blog post and its comments have highlighted a serious need for intra-faith work within the Jewish community.

Thanks again for starting this conversation, I think it is very important.