Tonight I attended a Muslim interfaith event and, rather than meeting new Muslim friends, I encountered Jewish diversity like I’d never seen before.
We Jews talk about Jewish diversity a lot.
We have our standard Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. We have the relative newcomers—the Reconstructionist Jews and the Jewish Renewal Jews.
We also have our cultural Jews. Those are the Jews who like bagels with a schmear but don’t hold much with the God-thing.
We even have secular Jews. That’s a Jew who doesn’t believe in God, which is not as strange as it sounds once you understand Judaism is a peoplehood as well as a religion. Babies are born Jewish [in some denominations it’s only the mother’s Jewish-ness that determines the Jewish-ness of the baby. In other denominations it’s the mother or the father.] As that baby grows up, s/he remains Jewish even without a spiritual belief in God.
A few years ago, Tablet Magazine ran an article about a non-Jew who wanted to convert to secular Judaism. He asks his Jewish friend, “Is it possible to convert to secular Judaism?” to which his friend replies, “No. You have to convert the usual way and then have a fight with your rabbi.” To my non-Jewish readers, that’s a joke.
In my interfaith work I’m often asked, “What do Jews think about so-and-so?” I’m careful to preface any statement with the caveat, “I can’t speak for all Jews, but…” followed by a recital of “Conservative Judaism holds…”, then, “Some Reform Jews…”, and finally, “Most Orthodox Jews…” Mind you, I often have to do a lot of research, particularly for my Qur’an class, when I’m asked to share a Jewish perspective.
The truth is: Jews are as diverse as any other religion/people/culture/group.
Tonight I learned just how diverse our diversity can be.
Tonight I met the Neturei Karta: the ultra-ultra-Orthodox [if that's what they can be called] Jews who pray for the “dismantling” of Israel.
I won’t go into this group’s practices or beliefs. This blog is not a place for political discussion but rather is a forum for sharing positive interfaith experiences and religious commonality and insight.
Yet what I found so disconcerting sitting at tonight’s interfaith encounter surrounded by well-meaning Muslims and Love Thy Neighbor banners was that the person chosen to speak on behalf of the Jewish community was one of the rabbis from this fringe group.
For sure I, as a Jew, am not aligned with the views of left-wing BDS-supporters [that's Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions] who denounce Israel with every breath. Nor am I in step with the right-wing Islamophobes who bash Islam in the name of Israel’s security. While both these groups make a lot of noise and attract a lot of attention, they do not represent mainstream American Jewry.
They do not represent me.
Neither does the black-hatted, religious Jew—who tonight spouted [not-so-subtle] anti-Israel rhetoric in front of a room of well-meaning interfaith activists—represent me.
How does one—a Jew—deal with such a situation? Should I ignore it, confront it, be offended by it, or leave the proceedings? What's the proper interfaith protocol?
At the end of the evening, I approached one of the event organizers and whispered in her ear, “You know, your speaker is not representative of mainstream Jewry. It’s rather like asking a Muslim extremist to speak on behalf of Islam. Perhaps you and I can work together to create more meaningful partnerships and encounters in the community.”
We’re having coffee next week.
If you’ve ever received a personal email from me, you’ve seen the following tag in my signature line:
“Never attribute to malice that which can just as easily be attributed to ignorance.”
It’s not my quote, but I believe in the sentiment 100%.
One of our responsibilities as interfaith activists is to give the Other Guy the benefit of the doubt.
Both Islam and Judaism are diverse. Both contain outliers or people who are far from the spiritual and cultural center of our traditions.
We are at our best when we don’t accept these fringe groups as typical of the larger community.
For the most part, most Jews of different denominations can agree mostly on two things: there is One God and our holy book is the Torah. [Noted exception: secular and cultural Jews, maybe.]
With close to14 million Jews in the world, that’s a pretty big continuum of differences. With 1.6 billion Muslims, the continuum of differences in Islam is staggering.
What do you say we cut each other some slack and agree that the few odd ducks in our flock are not indicative of the whole?