Cynthia Reich

Talmud Torah Day School


Jesus changed my life. It happened on a Sunday afternoon in February of 1993. I was sitting in a room filled with a few friends and acquaintances, but mostly with strangers. All of us, participants in the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium, were presenting scriptural texts we found personally meaningful, ones that shaped our religious self-understanding. I remember being amazed by the depth and breadth of knowledge of the people in the room, by the serious commitment to their respective traditions, and by the passion with which they communicated their beliefs. The perspectives and images the Catholic participants used for understanding the world and their place in it were striking.

I listened to comment after comment about the spirituality of Jesus, and the way God’s incarnation in Jesus had served for these Catholics as a model of religious life and service to others. I had frequently thought about Jesus as an historical figure and certainly I knew about the significance of Jesus to Christians. At that first meeting I began to take seriously a theological notion I had sometimes considered outrageous, sometimes ridiculous, and sometimes irrelevant. Although the theological notion of the humanness of God was neither foreign nor objectionable to me, the particular expression of God’s humanness in Jesus had always made me extremely uncomfortable. Suddenly it struck me as meaningful, powerful, and moving. I remembered feeling exhilarated—and terrified. Nearly a year and a half later, as I prepared for our fifth meeting, this incident was the most prominent of my memories of the Colloquium.

My response that day surprised me. The Colloquium was not my first serious encounter with committed Catholics or with Catholic thought and practice. Early in my professional experience I worked in two Catholic high schools in the Los Angeles area, teaching about Judaism throughout the curriculum. Through the preparation I did, the questions teachers and students asked, and the discussions all of us engaged in, I learned about Catholic practices and concepts. This learning helped me to be more reflective about Judaism, and to think about Jewish life and ideas from another perspective. I noticed aspects of Jewish tradition I had not noticed before. I became more self-consciously Jewish and developed a new appreciation for my own tradition. After this experience I did not expect the Colloquium to destabilize me. Throughout many of the meetings I envied participants who were engaging in interfaith work for the first time.

Only in preparing for the sixth meeting of our group, when we would address issues of pluralism, did I begin to appreciate why that moment had been so significant. Prior to this experience at the first meeting of the Colloquium, my interfaith encounters had led me to tolerance and beyond it to an appreciation of "the other." I had not, however, progressed in my interfaith work beyond what Michael Kogan has called "the stage of an exchange of views leading to mutual respect." Kogan urges a dialogue that moves "beyond mutual respect to mutual influence and, ultimately, to mutual enlightenment" (1995, 93). Nearly three years later, I began to recognize that my encounter that day called me to reckon with what the divinity of Jesus really meant, not just to these Catholic colleagues but also to me as a committed Jew and Jewish educator. I perceived, though still only on an emotional level, the requirement to redefine myself.

The issue of the divinity of Jesus had always been a clear boundary, helping me to define and distinguish Christianity from Judaism. Recognizing this boundary helped me feel secure about the distinction between the two faith traditions. My understanding of and relationship with God had never been as personal as my new colleagues’, and there was something compelling about the image of God to which they bore witness. Suddenly both my sense of security and my basic beliefs felt threatened. I was also afraid of the unknown. What would my understandings of God and Judaism be like if I thought and felt differently about the divinity of Jesus? What would my relationship with God be like? Yet coupled with this fear was excitement about the prospect of serious personal and religious growth. That incident provided me with the experience to begin to understand the meaning of pluralism for a religious person.

The term pluralism is used extensively and loosely in our culture. Diana Eck identifies tendencies and approaches often equated with pluralism that she believes are distinct from it. According to Eck, pluralism is not the sheer fact of plurality alone, not simply tolerance, not simply relativism, and not syncretism. Rather it involves active engagement with people and truth claims from faith traditions different from one’s own. Pluralism requires that people make a genuine effort to understand their similarities and differences through encounter with one another and to be open to the possibility of change by both partners. While recognizing the relative nature of truth, pluralism requires commitment to one’s own tradition and community. Pluralism is based on a respect for differences, not on an expectation of obliterating differences or merging them into a syncretistic whole. It is based on dialogue, a form of communication involving "meeting, exchange, traffic, criticism, reflection, reparation, renewal." Its purposes are to develop relationships, to understand ourselves and our religious commitments, and to transform culture. (Eck 1993, 191-199)

Actualizing this vision of pluralism through dialogue is a challenge for religious people and presents particular difficulties for religious educators. The task for religious educators involves working with people before dialogue even begins. Potential participants need to be convinced of the value of dialogue and its potential for stimulating growth. Preparing people for dialogue requires cultivating knowledge, confidence, openness and respect for others. It also demands a willingness to change and develop, humility, tolerance of ambiguity and commitment to one’s own tradition. Besides helping people to develop these qualities, religious educators must work to counter forces that impede dialogue.

One force is cultural. To a great extent, and in spite of the thrust toward multicultural education, North American culture works against the cultivation of the dispositions that must precede genuine dialogue. From the world of business to the athletic field, our culture values "the best." In the ways we advertise products, in the ways we root for sports teams, in the ways we litigate—and we do a lot of that—in the ways our officials run for public office and conduct themselves once elected, we create dichotomies. Our side is good, the other is bad; we are right, the other is wrong. Growing fundamentalism in our country reflects a tendency in our culture to simplify complicated matters, to identify others as opponents and then to demonize them. These cultural trends lessen the likelihood that people will be eager to engage for the sake of learning and cooperation with those who are different.

Among Jews, feelings of mistrust and fear still abound and present another force educators will encounter in working toward pluralism. At a recent retreat of fifth graders from our congregation, our group was in a large dining room at the camp finishing up lunch. It was the first meal of the weekend at which we shared the dining room with other groups. At the end of the meal we distributed prayer booklets and prepared to do the grace after meals, birkat hamazon. During our singing the rest of the dining room became very quiet. Many of the people in the dining room (mostly high school church groups) sat and watched. Our students reacted passionately and vociferously to the experience. They felt they had been gawked at, and that the stares were indicative of disrespect for them and what they were doing as Jews. At best they felt misunderstood. Several felt embarrassed. None of the students even considered the possibility that these onlookers were surprised or curious. Most had no regrets about having done the blessing in that room. The majority were unequivocal that when the time came to do the blessing again that they had they right and responsibility to do it no matter what the others in the room did or felt. Other students had ducked under the table while we recited the blessing at lunch, and would have been happy for us not to recite it at dinner.

During dinner our group leader approached the leaders of the other groups and offered an explanation of what we had done at lunch. He offered to spend a few minutes explaining things to their groups. Their response was filled with enthusiasm, excitement and gratitude. Several of the high school students in the groups shared their reactions from the afternoon. They had numerous questions. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to bring our groups together for a discussion. When the staff reported to a few of our kids what had happened when we approached the other groups, they said, "Really? You mean they were curious and interested? They weren’t making fun of us.?"

Along with the fear and mistrust Jews feel toward Christians comes a Jewish tendency not to take Christianity seriously as a faith tradition. While most Jews want and expect Christians to come to terms with antisemitic elements in Christian tradition, to recognize the Jewishness of Jesus, and to be more sensitive to Jewish concerns, few give much thought to what Christianity has to say to us as Jews. This small incident with ten and eleven year-olds reminds us that reaching Kogan’s "mutual respect" and even Eck’s "mere tolerance" are formidable tasks.

In any discussion of religious education, the question arises of assessing priorities, given limited time. Our educational institutions are concerned about the paltry amount of time we see our students—children, youth, and adult alike. How can we afford to learn about other traditions when we barely have enough time to teach about our own traditions? Shouldn’t we use this precious time to teach our people to be Jews and to live and think Jewishly? What will we have to sacrifice in order to make time for interfaith work and the preparation it requires?

Even if our religious communities and educational institutions are willing to prepare for and participate in dialogue many questions remain. At what age and after what preparation are people ready to engage in dialogue? How early in one’s education can and should preparation begin? Is it possible to begin preparing a people too early or too late in their religious training? What type of knowledge is necessary and how should that knowledge be perceived? At what point in a person’s development is commitment strong enough to bear the challenges dialogue presents? How can we determine emotional readiness? If people begin to participate in dialogue, will the participation itself generate greater readiness? How do we support participants through the disequilibrium they are likely to experience in connection with dialogue?

The personal attributes which dialogue demands—knowledge, tolerance of ambiguity, openness, respect for others, a willingness to change and develop, humility, confidence—span the areas of human development in the cognitive, moral, social, psychological and spiritual dimensions. Some go beyond religious education as it is usually conceived. A theory or framework is necessary to guide practice that synthesizes insights from faith development, individual and social psychology, and cognitive development. William Perry’s notion of "commitment in relativism" or Stephen Brookfield’s concept of critical thinking could be developed for a faith context. If we are indeed committed to creating educational institutions and opportunities that will help learners create a pluralistic culture, we need to reconsider our goals, structures, methods, staffing, and institutional cultures.

Advocating for a place for pluralism and dialogue in religious education in the face of these challenges and difficulties is a daunting job for religious educators. One argument for pluralism is that we have no choice; the future of humanity depends on it. Rodger Kamenetz describes a conversation he had with Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg in India where they had journeyed along with other rabbis and scholars to meet with the Dalai Lama. Greenberg asked Kamenetz, "Can you learn to propagate your religion without using stereotypes and negative images of the other? If we can’t, all religions will go down the tubes—and good riddance—because we’re a source of hatred and demolition of other people." (Kamenetz 1994, 110) In the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin we must face the painful possibility that we could be a source of demolition of our own people, as well.

Another justification for pluralism and dialogue is the potential they hold for deepening our own identities, knowledge and commitment. Rather than taking time away from learning about our own traditions, preparation for and participation in dialogue actually contributes to learning about ourselves. As a result of his encounter with Buddhism, Kamenetz describes giving up his tribal Jewish identity, one based on chauvinism and negative ideas about other traditions, in favor of one that recognizes and draws upon the spiritual wealth of Judaism. He found resources in Judaism he never knew existed. My fellow participants in the Colloquium describe the knowledge they acquired by formulating answers to questions and by presenting their traditions in terms people of the other faith could understand. The questions posed by people of the other faith tradition introduced concepts, categories and analogies that allowed all of us, indeed compelled us, to reflect differently on our own traditions.

Some would argue that we cannot even have a complete understanding of own traditions without encountering people of other faiths. Eck quotes the Jewish scholar Jean Halperin: "We not only need to understand one another, we need one another to understand ourselves" (Eck 1993, 189). Kamenetz uses the image of a reflecting pool to describe the effect of the encounter with the Dalai Lama: "He provided us a pool of nectar to look into, sweeter than a mirror, so that we Jews could see ourselves, not necessarily as we are, but as we might be" (Kamenetz 1994, 279).

Ultimately, pluralism and dialogue beckon us to understand and encounter God differently. As we become aware of other paths to the divine, as we encounter new images of God, we become more aware of human finitude and of God’s greatness and mystery. No single religious tradition or approach is able to apprehend God fully. Thus Jesus could change my life—by helping me break out of a limited perspective, by broadening my vision, by drawing me closer to God and by sending me back to my Jewish life and work with renewed commitment.

Cindy Reich teaches at the Talmud Torah Day School in St. Paul, Minnesota.


List of Works Consulted

Brookfield, Stephen. 1987. Developing critical thinkers. Stony, England. Open University Press.

Eck, Diana L. 1993. Encountering God: A spiritual journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon.

Kamenetz, Rodger. 1994. The Jew in the lotus. San Francisco: Harper.

Kogan, Michael S. 1995. Toward a Jewish theology of Christianity. Journal of Ecumenical Studies 32:1. 89-106, 152.

Perry, William G. 1968. Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.