On Being a Multifaith Rabbi

(note: an edited version of this piece is published in the newsletter of the RRA)

Working in a Christian Seminary, I sometimes feel like the wacky upstairs neighbor in a Hallmark Channel sitcom. Sure, Menachem Meiri and Yakov Emden respected Christianity – but would they have played Santa at the office Christmas party?

Inter-religious work has not changed much since its un-official birth at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It is often a community relations exercise in putting aside differences with the religious other to further political goals. Other times it is done in the name of “understanding,” and you find yourself smiling at someone’s warped theological ideas as the word “nut-job” illuminates in a mythic neon sign above their head. Other times you find yourself the spokes-model for the Jewish people—and very earnest people ask you about oysters and salvation and foreskins and mezuzahs.

But thankfully, most of my work these days is enlightened by the emerging academic field dedicated to wrestling with the question “What is the point of inter-religious work?” Three folks worth a careful read are Paul Knitter, Miroslav Wolf, and Jonathan Sacks. They answer with the following goals: to uplift the voice of the suffering; to critique bellicose gods; and to respond to globalization’s dark side.

What I appreciate about these thinkers is that unlike the visionaries of the last century, they are wise to religion’s trump card. They push me to navigate the terrain between those who are fundamentalists and those who are not with great care. They remind me that inter-religious work changes in every generation.

As Reconstrucionist rabbis, I think that we have a unique contribution to multi-faith work – and I’ve seen Kaplan’s concept of evolving religious civilization help leaders of other religious traditions to navigate revelation and reason. But I also sense that we have something unique to learn from this work. As rabbis who have a tendency to value doubt over faith, multi-faith work is often a healthy corrective to cynicism. A Zen master who told me ‘after a few years you move beyond the pillows’ reminded me that long-term faith commitments matter. As Kaplan’s notion of “peoplehood” is challenged and Jewish fundamentalism grows exponentially, it may be time to consider the role that faith, discipline and devotion can play in the lives of progressive Jews.

But ultimately, I think that the point of inter-religious work is, to quote Heschel’s No Religion is an Island, “to respond to the predicament of the here and now.” In Heschel’s world that meant Jews, Catholics, and Protestants speaking out against systemic racism with a unified, prophetic voice. Today, we need to do even more island hopping – and to do so in a world which is veering towards ecological implosion. And since we, as a rabbinic body, have racked up some serious inter-religious frequent flyer miles, I hope that we will chart the course ahead – or at least be put in charge of the in-flight entertainment.