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Interfaith Dialogue: Let’s Talk Without Letting Ourselves Be Duped

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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Marian Neudel

posted June 13, 2007 at 12:27 pm

It is one thing to have dialogue with one’s opponents, and another thing entirely to have dialogue with someone who believes you have no right to exist, is sworn to wipe you out. It made sense for Chamberlain to talk to Hitler. It would have been worse than useless for a representative of Czechoslovakia to do so.

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posted June 14, 2007 at 10:00 am

From what i hear on the news there has been talks with these nations. As to what they agree on is a different matter. We know that in our past we always tried to keep peace. And had the weapons to back it up. But to try and tell another country not to get to big on their weapons just don’t sound right to these people. You can talk all you want,but it is like saying i have the fork and you eat when i say.
I don’t know what these countries are afraid of,as they seem to help the only ones they may nead such weapons against. Unless they want to be like Hitler was,or really intended to use nuke power to better the nation. In any case,they should not disagree to us being there at all times, forever, to keep tabs on things they are doing with nuke power.This should satisfy everyone with plenty of other workers to create more jobs in the process. Otherwise,these nations MIGHT have other plans.

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posted June 14, 2007 at 1:05 pm

Peaceful Jewish-Muslim dialogue? How about peaceful Muslim-Muslim dialogue first.

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Larry Lennhoff

posted June 19, 2007 at 1:13 pm

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik z’tl firmly opposed any doctrinal discussions with non-Jewish religions. He explicitly forbade anyone from the RCA (the MO rabbinical organization) or YU to attend Vatican 2, even just as observers. The Rav thought we could collaborate with them on humanitarian matters (organizing support for the poor, for example), but should not discuss theological matters. Agudath Israel was and is even more opposed to formal religious contact with non-Jewish religious heirarchies.

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posted June 20, 2007 at 12:11 pm

Well written post : ) I’m here through belief-net and just finished reading a few of your posts and they’re a great read! Keep it up!
I have hope in humanity : ) Without that hope, my mind, heart and soul would have probably stopped functioning a long time ago. We can talk, we can reason, we can live as One people in One world under One creator. We have different names and paths for sure, but we all smile in the same language. I think it’s about time we understand that co-existing and appreciating the diversity is not a difficult matter.
Please keep on writing and spreading awareness!

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posted June 22, 2007 at 10:43 pm

The area of Beliefnet devoted to Islam currently features: In Islam’s Name; Denouncing Terror. I found the discussion there very helpful. Denver’s Imam Kazerooni, who is now a US citizen and was tortured by the Iraqi regime when the United States still supported the Hussein regime, has also written some informative pieces on the relationship between Islam and terror.

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