October 18, 2007
Interfaith panel wrestles with troubling texts:<BR>Will the real 'chosen' please rise?
"We learn who we are through struggling with text," said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "We must learn from the scars, from the blemishes, from the ugly parts of our textual tradition, our history and our faith."
Scholars, clergy and seminarians gathered this week at the Luxe Hotel to discuss troubling passages and ideas in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and ways of understanding them in modern times, as part of "Troubling Traditions: Wrestling With Problem Passages," a conference co-sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University.
While many of the presenters and attendees at the Oct. 15-16 conference were from the more liberal strands of their religions -- few mainstream Orthodox or hardcore evangelicals were present -- the hope for the meetings is that it will slowly transform the more extreme pockets, or at least save the moderates from them.
"I think we have to teach these texts to our children," Diamond said. "I worry if we don't, others will take them out of context and put a real negative spin -- with potentially very dangerous consequences."
In a session on chosenness -- a timely talk given Conservative commentator Ann Coulter's Oct. 11 comment, "We just want Jews to be perfected ... that is what Christians consider themselves: perfected Jews" -- speakers addressed how adherents have taken troubling passages literally and disseminated the resulting ideas to the world.
The Rev. Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and inter-religious officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, refers to a problematic passage in the Gospel of Mark: "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned." He says the authors of the text were primarily concerned with the faith of Christians in the second century.
"Even today some narrowly define it even further, that outside the Catholic church there is no salvation," he said.
However, he said, the modern interpretation is that believers of other faiths who engage in "the sincere practice of what is good in their own religion," will receive salvation.
"And they shall receive salvation in Jesus Christ even though they do not acknowledge him," he said.
In the end, Smith said, the task set before his co-religionists "is to formulate a theology of the multiplicity of God without diminishing the unique privilege of our belief."
How does any religion assert its own uniqueness while at the same time allowing for other faiths?
Each faith stakes a claim over chosenness.
Jews turn to Deuteronomy, "For you are a people consecrated to the Lord Your God: of all the peoples of the earth, the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people."
In the Christan Bible, it says in Peter, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, a people claimed by God for his own, to proclaim the glorious deeds of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."
And as it says in the Quran, "You are the best community that has been brought forth for humanity, commanding the reputable and forbidding the disreputable, and believing in God"; and in the Sura it says, "This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion."
"The real origin of chosenness has to do with the structure of tribalism in general," said professor Reuven Firestone, director of the Institute for the study of Jewish-Muslim interrelations at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Israel's God was the God of Israel just as the Moabites God was the God of Moab.
"It's logical that the relationship would be unique," he said.
"Just as the God of Israel fought for Israel against its enemies, the God of Moab fought its battles," he said. "The notion of chosenness became a powerful tool to claim authenticity to critique the authenticity of others."
This is not to say that Firestone rejects the notion of the Jews' chosenness.
"I am not able or willing to throw it out," he said. "I remain perched on the sharp horns of a dilemma. I can't disregard the texts - they are part of the divine word; they can't simply be jettisoned," he said. But on the other hand, "they can't be taken as a simple truth."
Definitive answers on Jewish chosenness are not exactly forthcoming.
"A good Jew doesn't want to find definitive answers," said conference attendee Gerald Bubis, the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles School of HUC-JIR. "A good Jew wants to find new questions."
UCLA Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, who chaired the session on chosenness, offered a different, psychological perspective: "It sounds like the ploy of minority -- we may be insignificant numerically, but we are God's chosen; if you are going to be beaten up, it might be comforting to know that you are chosen."
But in today's world, Seidler Feller suggested, the concept of being the chosen people may have to be discarded. He himself revises the prayers, "Ki Banu Bacharta Mikol Ha'amim" (For you have chosen us among all the nations), to say: For you have chosen us with all the nations.
In a subsequent Q-and-A session, the Rev. Vartkes Kassouni of the Morningside Presbyterian Church of Fullerton suggested: "Chosenness can be understood in terms of mission than instead of identity."
Firestone agreed. Perhaps this is all God's plan: if he'd wanted everyone to be the same religion, he would have made everyone the same religion; maybe there are different religions so "they would compete with one another in good works," he said.
The conference was heavily attended by Christians and Jews from various denominations, but there was a dearth of Muslim attendees and lecturers. Like other presenters, Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, vice president of the Academy of Judaic-Christian and Islamic studies in California and chair of the Shura Council of Southern California, chose to examine a text that dissuaded believers from dealing with people from other faiths: "You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies: they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them - God does not guide such wrongdoers."
(A Jewish version from the Talmud says, "He who conceded to gentiles falls into their hands; and he who trusts them -- what belongs to him will become theirs.")
Siddiqi did not explicitly deal with the more troubling texts in the Quran, used by many terrorists today to justify murder and violence.
He said afterward in an interview that people who quote the Quran to justify murder are "misquoting and abusing" the text, taking it out of context. "There is no text in the Quran that says to kill anyone because he or she has a different belief," Siddiqi said. "There is no coercion in matters of religion: you cannot force people to accept your faith."
The point of the conference, Diamond said, was not to find the fault in other faiths. "We should focus the troubling passages on in our own traditions, not to point out disturbing parts of other traditions."
The hope for the conference was that by examining the problematic passages and their misuse over the centuries - from the Crusades to the Holocaust to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Sept. 11 -- it will effect a change in the way clergy, and then their followers, interpret and act on those texts.
"Interfaith relations have to be more than just touchy-feely," said Rabbi Stewart Vogel, president of the Board of Rabbis. By struggling with difficult issues, people gain a respect for other faiths and that translates into better interfaith relations.
Also, "if you push them to reflect on an issue with a new sensitivity, they will go back to their seminaries," Vogel said, and teach it differently.