Virtual Talmud

The recent pronouncements of some Muslim clerics, mixed in with the ever-quotable madman from Iran, has made people curious about the question: Should we have a “litmus test” to interfaith dialogue, conditions that must be met before we sit down with a certain person or group for dialogue? I don’t want to sound like the religious version of Bill Clinton when I say that it depends on what we all mean by the word “dialogue.”
My gut tells me, what’s the purpose of dialogue if it’s not with people we radically disagree with? Whenever I hear that the United States will not speak with Syria or Iran, I wonder to myself, what’s the purpose of diplomacy if you don’t speak with the people who are causing you the most problems?
That said, we all remember the famous Munich agreement signed in the 1930s by then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain and many others thought that by appeasing Hitler and agreeing to break up Czechoslovakia they would be able to avert going to war with Hitler. At the time, Chamberlain was praised; only in retrospect did his name become infamous with political naiveté and moral wishy-washiness.
The truth of the matter is that there is a significant difference between letting one be duped into signing agreements and just sitting down at the table and talking. While in some cases even talking might have no effect (i.e. Hitler), most of the time you just do not know unless you try.
Sure, I would hope that the litmus test for interfaith dialogue would be a belief in peace and respect for the other’s religious worldview and practices. But these general rules usually are just catch words.
The truth of the matter is that if one held to such principles, than following the Holocaust, Jews would have never been able to sit down with a Catholic church that still held on to a supercessionist theology that wanted to see us–if not physically, then certainly spiritually–destroyed. At the time, talking to the Catholic Church might very well have been seen as talking with someone who did not respect either of the above listed rules vis-a-vis Judaism and the Jewish people. Luckily, however, we did sit down at the table, and for the last 40 years, amazing and beautiful things have come from that encounter.
When the Jewish tradition teaches us that one should dan lekaph zchut (judge one who you are unsure about with merit), it does not mean that we make ourselves vulnerable, sign away our life on some treaty, compromise on what we know to be morally wrong. It means assuming that there is enough goodness in each human being that it might be worth at the very least the opportunity and talk.
PS: It’s great to have Rabbi Brad Hirschfield from CLAL guest blogging this week, offering us his expertise. Brad is one of the most creative religious thinkers out there today, always making me re-think things. He’s got a lot to say and I hope he can give us a hand.

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