Posted by Rabbi Mark Diamond
Earlier this week I participated in one of my favorite rituals—an “Intentional Conversation.” This annual conclave was launched fourteen years ago by Msgr. Royale Vadakin of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Intentional conversations bring together 80-100 people of diverse ages, backgrounds and interests for a structured conversation about personal values and social issues. This year’s theme was, “Can We All Get Along? The Challenges of Civil Discourse and Mutual Respect.” Coming one day after the death of Rodney King, the topic could not have been more timely or poignant.
Intentional conversations encourage small groups of participants to share their own life experiences and how they shape their morals and beliefs—religious, cultural and political. In three “intentional conversations” at my table, nine of us spoke of our values, the key influences in our lives and what we might do to bridge the divide in our society.
I look forward to this gathering for several reasons. Intentional conversations feature an astonishing array of bright, creative individuals—academics, writers, musicians, businessmen and women, professionals, and a handful of clergy thrown in for good (or perhaps bad) measure. I admire and appreciate the ground rules of the conclave. There is no formal agenda and there are no resolutions to adopt. No one is an expert or has all the answers to the questions we discuss. Our task is to think about who we are, what we believe, and what we value in our lives.
By the third small group conversation, my tablemates and I were deeply engaged in discussion of what we can do to promote tolerance and respect in our families, communities and nation. None of us had brilliant solutions to address the precipitous decline of civil discourse in our society. Nonetheless, we agreed that the intentional conversation had brought us to a shared commitment to take small steps to address this challenge. We know that we cannot sit idly by as angry, divisive rhetoric dominates discussions of race, religion and politics and paralyzes communal life. Each of us has a role to play in addressing contentious issues with civility, honesty and respect.
Controversy is an inherent feature of societal discourse. The rabbinic sages famously teach that a controversy for Heaven’s sake will have lasting value, but one that is not for a higher purpose will not endure (Pirkay Avot 5:19). The Torah’s account of Korah’s rebellion is the paradigm of an unholy controversy rooted in demagoguery and motivated by the self-serving ambitions of the rebels.
In contradistinction to Korah, the rabbinic debaters Hillel and Shammai and their disciples argued passionately and vociferously over matters of Jewish law and life. At the end of the day, they ate together, celebrated and mourned together, and lived together as one community. The Talmud records that their sons and daughters married one another, a sure sign of the spirit of civility and respect that pervaded their familial and communal relations.
In former days, members of Congress spent weekends at their homes in Washington, DC. The daughters and sons of Democrats and Republicans played soccer and baseball together, ate in each others’ homes, and even married one another. Most legislators today do not maintain residences in the nation’s capital. Instead, they return to their home districts, families and fundraisers each weekend. Republicans and Democrats dine together infrequently and do not cheer from the sidelines as their children meet and compete in sporting events. Where is the spirit of Hillel and Shammai today?
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June 13, 2012 | 6:05 pm
Posted by Rabbi Mark Diamond
Albert and Tony were best friends who grew up in each other’s homes. Albert’s Jewish mother sent him off to school each day with the question, “Albert, do you have your books?” Tony’s Italian mother sent him off to school each morning with the query, “Tony, do you have your lunch?”
I heard this true story last week at a gathering of evangelical and Jewish leaders in Washington, DC. Tony shared this charming childhood tale to introduce his presentation on how Jews and evangelical Christians view the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I share it to illustrate the commonalities and differences of two faith communities. Jews and evangelical Christians share a holy book in common—the Hebrew Bible, a.k.a. the Old Testament. And we share a belief in the efficacy of interfaith dining—the bonds of friendship and fellowship that develop when we “break bread” together.
Over the course of two days, participants in the fourth Evangelical-Jewish National Conversation discussed and debated a range of scholarly and practical topics. We analyzed faith affirmations and the threats to religious liberty in America. We surveyed evangelical theological positions on the Jewish people and its covenant with God. We devoted two sessions to the Middle East conflict and the hot-button issue of how to and not to criticize Israel. While many evangelical pastors and their congregants are strong supporters of Israel, our conversation focused on evangelicals who are critical of Israeli policies. The discourse was heartfelt, honest and at times raw and intense.
We also explored the seminalJewish Annotated New Testament
and its emerging impact on Jewish and evangelical readers. This session reiterated a theme that I hear frequently when I speak to Jewish audiences: Why would a group of distinguished Jewish scholars write essays about the books of the New Testament? Why should Jews learn about Christianity? Who cares what “they” believe and practice?
My answer is quite simple—do the math! I have always marveled at our proclivity for math and the astonishing number of Jews who have won prizes in mathematics and allied disciplines. Do the math in our nation. According to the latest Pew Forum “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” 1.7% of American adults identify as Jewish, while 26.3% of adults call themselves evangelicals. Nearly one-half of all Protestants in the United States self-identify as evangelical Christians. Whether our interfaith outreach is prompted by self-interest, altruism, or both motivations, we serve the Jewish people well when we engage our evangelical neighbors in meaningful dialogue.
As Jews, we often lament that Christians do not understand our practices and beliefs. If we expect Christians to respect us, then we need to know much more about Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity. To that end, we must appreciate the following:
As we engage in interfaith work, we must never forget the first nineteen centuries of relations between Christians and Jews. They were marked by anti-Semitism, persecution, and hatred, much of it religiously induced and carried out in the name of the Prince of Peace. They were filled with blood libels, accusations of well poisoning, devil worship, host desecration and other acts that led to pogroms, murder, rape, and the forced conversion of entire Jewish communities. This is a bitter legacy whose logical and terrifying conclusion was the systematic destruction of six million Jewish men, women and children at the hands of the Nazis and their henchmen.
My experiences with evangelical Christians convince me that they are painfully aware of this history and yearn to do teshuvah (repentance) in word and deed. It is up to us to respond to their quest with faith, understanding, and above all sekhel (practical wisdom). The rabbinic sage Ben Azzai taught that the most important verse of the Torah is Genesis 5:1: “These are the generations of Adam. When God created human beings, God made them in the divine image.”
Christians and Jews alike affirm that we are all created in the image of God. Each of us is a child of God. To love God is to act with love, kindness and compassion towards God’s children. This is what the Holy One requires of us. This is what our respective faiths demand of us. This is what our fellowmen and women expect of us. This is both the promise and the challenge of Jewish-evangelical relations.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is Executive Vice President, The Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He can be reached at BoardofRabbis@JewishLA.org.