Back when I was a young, doe-eyed, proto-rabbi– there was one thing above all else that I felt the need to hide from my classmates and teachers. It was an opinion which was very much not in vogue (#unpopularopinion) and I thought it best to not be too eager to share it. Basically, I thought that interfaith work was a vastly-over hyped and meaningless concept.
This wasn’t out of any xenophobia or distaste for other religions. Quite the contrary– I’d always felt that it was the job of clergy of any faith to learn about every faith. Rather, my distaste for interfaith programmes and meetings was that it seemed utterly pointless. Most of the one’s I’d been to were the same, small, well-meaning, group of people– talking, and talking, and talking.
Indeed, there is quite a common phenomena of superficial interfaith work– efforts to engage in ‘dialogue’ which mostly result in several monologues, but recited collectively. It took a while for me to realise that what bothered me so much wasn’t the interfaith premise itself (that’s critical, actually), but rather the way in which I’d mostly seen it done.
You see– I think the project of learning and sharing our faiths with those of different faith(s) (or none) is most effective not when we’re talking about ourselves and our faiths, but when we’re doing something. I realised this first when I started doing social action projects which brought together people of different faiths, and I’ve continued to see it be true in the rabbinate. Actually getting together to do something, rather than talk about doing something is far more effective.
Indeed, it is better to do anything- even unlikely things. Getting a church group and a mosque group to go bowling together is far better than having a meeting where each side talk about their views of faith. I think this is partially because, as a rabbi and a Jew, I find the whole project of proselytising religion so distasteful. Since our aim is not to convert our fellow Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans (you name it) to Judaism– why do we need to demonstrate the merit of Jewish doctrine to them. Quite simply– what does it matter what we believe or they believe?
To me, what matters far more, is that we learn to see each other as fellow humans and fellow seekers. My appreciation of people of a different religion shouldn’t be based on the contents of their faith’s dogmas– it should be based on the meta-goal of ensuring that people of different religions spend time with each other and see each other as subjects, not objects.
Because so much of history has been informed by religions misunderstanding each other, I can relate to the need to explain our faiths. But today, the bigger problem is not misunderstanding, but dehumanisation. Extremist groups disregard people of other faiths as less-than-human. The best antidote to that is not sharing our views, but sharing our time.
Thus, I’m supremely proud of the work we’ve done at SAMS to build meaningful relationships with our other faith communities by doing stuff together. Interfaith projects on Mitzvah Day and throughout the year have been immensely successful. Working, sharing, living, acting, and playing together all help to break down those barriers and counteract the ‘othering’ impulse of all faiths.
It really doesn’t matter what we do in building those bonds– but it does help if it’s something fun. Which is why I’d like to invite you all to come and watch an afternoon of cricket, this Sunday (4 Aug) at 1.30pm at the cricket pitches in Verulamium Park. There’s a team from SAMS (whoop whoop!), one from the Islamic Centre on Hatfield Road, and two put together by St. Paul’s. I’m really looking forward to embarrassing myself horribly– and I hope you’ll come to watch– because I sincerely believe that we learn more from each other when we do something and not just say something.