The Unexpected Return

Goyische Mazel for One Yiddische Kup
By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

In 5763 I worked in an office of orthodox rabbis who quoted Talmudic tractates and ate microwaved knishes. In 5764 I’ll be spending my days with Presbyterian ministers who quote John Calvin and eat cold shrimp salads. No, I haven’t found Jesus, or tasted shrimp, but after six years on the faculty of CLAL I’ve left to become the first rabbi to direct the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. Auburn has strong Presbyterian roots, and my father-in-law jokes that I am “America’s first Presbyterian Rabbi”. Ugh. During the first week of my new gig, under the watchful eyes of the gargoyles peering down at me from atop Riverside Church I hung up a print of Tzfat sculptor Mike Leaf’s masterpiece “the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Bob Dylan, and the Mosiach on Harleys”. It was my way of claiming a bit of turf. I’m not sure what they think of it.

I imagine that for most rabbis the thought of working as an agent of a Protestant seminary would sound like a bizarre and ironic career choice, but for me this position is sort of a homecoming. As a son of the South I grew up in the Presbyterian stronghold of Charlotte, North Carolina – home not only to a large and thriving Presbyterian community but a Presbyterian hospital and college as well. My best friend in junior high and high school was Dwight Thomas Bridges III, a Presbyterian.

But still, there is something uncomfortable about a being a rabbi and working within the seminary of another religious tradition. The first time that I visited Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who teaches World Religions at a Buddhist university, I was a little freaked by the Buddhist icons and idols around campus and the constant bowing, to the idols and to teachers, that marked Naropa University’s spiritual approach. I knew that for every pioneer like Reb Zalman, there were many who turned in the other direction. When my best friend from college, a Jewish guy from an affluent White suburb, became a baal t’shuvah he confided in me that he had completely broken his ties with his non-Jewish friends. His rabbi had explained that we should not be fooled by gestures of goodwill – that the entire world was still out to get us, and that the Passover Haggadah’s words “in every generation they stand against us to wipe us out” are as true today as they ever were. I was very disturbed to think that my friend had abandoned the idea that there would be peaceful relations between Jews and any of the other peoples that inhabit the planet, and I vowed that I would always maintain my deep ties of friendship to people outside the Jewish community.

I had no idea how hard it would be to keep that vow. Ever since I entered rabbinical school my world has become increasingly monocultural each year. The three friendships from college with non-Jews that I tried to maintain were stretched thin as I immersed myself in Jewish life. In their place I met many new Jewish friends and once I got my family multiplying (My sweetheart Lisa and I are blessed with three little ones) I found myself gravitating to Jewish families and forming a chavurah. In our new home we had some Christian neighbors but only once did we invite them over for a Shabbat meal. When my two oldest started Solomon Schechter Day School I had formally moved into a self-imposed shtetl – in the phone list I kept in my Palm Pilot the only non-Jews were my plumber, my carpenter, and my roofer. I had seriously broken my vow.

All that has changed in a month. Now I not only spend hours in dialogue with thoughtful Protestants, but I meet with Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, and Muslims. My new hero is a seventy-eight year-old Catholic nun who has a sharp sense of humor and speaks of the virtues of silence and contemplative practices. In my new position I also get to meet with many Jewish thinkers and scholars – and invite them in to be part of the creative religious dialogues happening at Auburn.

So this is a tale of a homecoming – and like all tales of homecoming, not only have I changed but the place has changed too. America, which once was steered under the spiritual and moral guidance of the mainline Protestant churches, has now become a diverse multifaith landscape. We are entering an era in which no one group is in the majority and where there will be new challenges for Jews. Unlike other eras in which we had to stay on the good side of the sultan, king, pope or czar, we’ll now have many relationships to maintain and bridges to build. Some of us may retreat even further into our own communities, but ultimately we will have to figure out how to thrive within an evolving system of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “religious biodiversity.” Instead of standing on the sidelines of this flowering of religious diversity, we might ask ourselves what we have to contribute to America’s next era of spiritual and moral development.

On Rosh Hashannah, we speak of teshuvah, which literally means returning. Returning to our ideals, to our responsibilities and ultimately to God. For me, reconnecting with Christians and others has been a type of teshuvah. I never would have imagined that a rabbi could do teshuvah by going off to join a Protestant seminary. But as Isaac Bashevis Singer once said: “It’s God’s novel, let him write it.”

- published in The Jewish Week