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The Delight of Difference: Reporting on the Interfaith Clergy Group Co-Sponsored by LSI

“I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say.”  Who first said this, I don’t know, but it may account for the exceptional interest and enthusiasm we clergy felt.  We were twenty in all, half Christians, half Jews.  For six weeks, once a week for two hours, we gathered to learn more about each other’s faith.  We came, not to debate, but to describe and discuss.  We came, not to find common ground, but to speak freely about our differences, trusting that what was said would be received with respect and appreciation.  It was.
The experience exceeded expectations.  For instance, we expected our understanding of the others’ faith to grow, but our understanding of our own grew as well.  One rabbi asked, for example, what it meant to speak of a sacrament.  Hearing the response, he wondered if Passover could be considered a sacrament for Jews.  Or, another example, many Christian clergy were not familiar with how Jews wrestle with the sacred texts, even to the extent of challenging them.  This opened new horizons for some of us.
In yet another way our experience exceeded expectations.  None of us, I believe, were prepared for the depth of friendships that developed.  As one rabbi remarked, “Our traditions are set up to keep us encountering only people in (or interested in) our traditions–if we’re Christian, other Christians; Jews, other Jews.  We rarely are brought together in this way, regularly, with peers from other traditions, so that we can develop new personal connections.”  An Episcopal priest echoed the same thought.
Differences became clear, but never became an obstacle to the growing intimacy.  I say intimacy. because one of the rabbis spoke of “an intimacy that was immediate, because everyone was readily open, even about matters they wrestle with.”
A subtle difference emerged in discussing beliefs.  In fact, some of us Christians were taken aback when the Jews affirmed that Judaism is not a belief.  We also discerned a slightly different emphasis in spirituality.  Speaking generally, Christians seemed to lean more toward the personal, while Jews leaned toward the communal.
All that was said was said in confidence.  Without this commitment it is unlikely friendships would have formed to the depth they did; nor would participants have risked speaking aloud about their own doubts and questions.  Still, one rabbi reported that when people learned about the existence of the dialogue group (only the existence), they found it “healing and helpful and inspirational.”  It meant a lot to this rabbi to be able to tell people about it.
Each of the six meetings had one or more topics for discussion.  These were decided upon in advance by the Rev. Bruce Chilton, Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College; and Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, the Senior Scholar of the Lev Shalem Institute in Woodstock. NY.  For instance, the first session simply asked for a response to a series of statements: “When I say [Bible] I mean….”  [“Redemption,” etc.]   In later sessions we discussed methods of interpretation; the binding of Isaac; sin and repentance; authority; and (though we never got to it) the afterlife.
Limiting the discussion to clergy had an ulterior motive.  If the clergy found the experience to be rich and faith-building, perhaps they would want to pair up and offer the same experience to their congregations.  So far this has not happened, for the clergy wanted to continue with a second, six-week series of their own.
Participants included Christian clergy from the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran traditions; and rabbis and cantors from Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, and “Post-denominational” traditions.  Most of us Christians hadn’t realized how complex Judaism is outside of Reform.  The reverse also was true.
Brief readings were provided for each of the sessions, chosen by Professor Chilton and Rabbi Kligler.  Each week the venue switched back and forth between one Christian church and one Jewish synagogue.
In a burst of hyperbole perhaps, one rabbi summed up the experience by saying of the place where we met, “I felt a  blinding light going out through the window… the sense of sitting with people who shared the same commitment to bringing compassion into the world was profound… it mattered more than differences.”
To learn more of the specifics of how the course was structured, email me, the Rev. Susan Auchincloss: simplysusana@earthlink.net  or phone 845-679-7002.