Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Religious understanding comes from hard questions

Religious understanding comes from hard questions

Wed Dec 15

By Gerald L. Zelizer

A class of pre-adolescents visited my synagogue with their priest, who was instructing them in the Jewish roots of Christianity. As I was explaining my religion to them, a student blurted out: "Rabbi, why don't you Jews believe in Christ? Isn't God going to punish you?"

The embarrassed priest quickly ushered the child from the sanctuary to give him a crash course in interfaith manners. The priest was well intentioned, but he pulled the plug too quickly. The student would have learned more about Judaism from an uninhibited and thorough exchange on the question he asked.

So would we all if we could just get beyond the bland niceties that usually rule interfaith dialogue and instead have substantive discussions on these occasions.

To be sure, many of us were raised not to talk about religion in mixed company for fear of confrontation. That and politics, of course. But that advice was tailored to an earlier era when religions were more suspect of one another.

Today, respect has largely replaced suspicion. How else to account for the election of religious Jews, Catholics and evangelical Protestants to high political office, with the support of voters from many different faiths? Or the fact that roughly half of evangelical Christians believe that non-Christians can go to heaven? There is sufficient tolerance now to learn about other religions by not backing away from the hard questions.

Holiday opportunity

During this holiday season, many of us are casual observers of the customs of our friends, neighbors and even family members of another religion. The country's religious fluidity brings with it for many Americans a diverse holiday itinerary, one that might honor Ramadan at one function and Hanukkah and Christmas at others. Etiquette and understanding are expected during these drop-ins.

The media are helpful in explaining interfaith etiquette and promoting deeper understanding of religions. Beliefnet, the most visited religious Internet site, lets experts answer such questions as: What (food) should I serve my Jewish co-workers? Does Catholicism allow non-Catholic godparents? What should I wear to a mosque?

Books go beyond good manners to explain to adherents of one religion the beliefs and practices of another. But understanding religious distinctiveness through book learning is still arm's length. When we face one another in interfaith settings, the rules require that etiquette trump understanding, and we dare not probe too much.


How would it be if in interfaith contacts, we went beyond politeness and instead posed to each other the most challenging questions, got answers and engaged in give-and-take on those views?

Several provocative questions you likely won't hear at a holiday party anytime soon:

Christians to Jews: "Why don't you accept Jesus as God?"

Jews to Christians: "How do you profess belief in 'three Gods' - the Father, Son and Holy Ghost - yet still hold to monotheism?"

Jews and Christians to Muslims: "What notion of God permits a seeming overload of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam?"

Muslims to Jews and Christians: "Why do you pay and take interest on loans if God tells you that interest is forbidden?"

Muslims, Jews and Christians to Buddhists: "Do you believe in God?"

An Episcopal priest and I have occasionally exchanged venues. I visited his church and explained the meaning of my faith's symbols of the Passover seder. He then came to my synagogue and taught the same symbols through the lens of one who believes in the Trinity.

A Presbyterian pastor and I also have exchanged pulpits to teach our understandings of the same biblical passages. Our goal was not to argue or convert, but to facilitate parishioners' understanding of their religion in contrast with another. You don't have to be a priest or rabbi to have this kind of substantive interchange. Each of us can ask these kinds of questions and get real answers during this season.

You may find that the best gift exchanged during the holidays doesn't come wrapped with a bow. Perhaps it could be the gift of information. Interfaith etiquette is momentarily pleasant. Interfaith understanding lasts a lifetime.

Gerald L. Zelizer, rabbi of Neve Shalom, a Conservative congregation in New Jersey, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.