The “Why” of Interreligious Engagement, By Mark J. Pelavin

Posted on March 23rd, 2009 | Filed under Faith and Politics


I relish this work because I believe that religious communities learning to understand and interact with one another – not just to tolerate each other, not just to stay a safe distance from one another – is absolutely critical in building the type of nation I am confident that we all aspire to be.

In the Jewish community attention to interreligous affairs is cyclical.  We can go a generation without paying much attention to building our interreligous relationships only to find that when we need them they have, like unused muscle, simply atrophied.  To be sure, in recent years we have been challenged quite regularly and we have had our share, more than our share, of crisis; but even absent a crisis, perhaps especially absent a crisis, relations between faith communities are crucial.  


There are innumerable answers to that question for Jews. There are practical reasons, about living in predominantly non-Jewish community.  There are political reasons, about the need to build coalitions if we want to make progress on our own goals.  But I want to spend a few moments on the religious reasons for interreligous engagement.  Put simply, serious engagement with other faiths can provide the stone upon which we sharpen our own faith.  When we approach, as we too often do, interfaith dialogue simply for practical or political reasons, we miss a powerful religious opportunity.   

I have come to understand my own Judaism so much more fully as I have learned to understand it in relation to other faiths.  To put it in context, here is one example. Rabbi Mark Levin once wrote a powerful sermon which the Union for Reform Judaism distributed as that week’s Torat Hayim (“Living Torah” discussion) on the story of Noah.  Rabbi Levin, citing the work of Umberto Cassuto, examined how Genesis’ version of the flood story differs from other ancient flood stories, of which there are many.  He observes that the Torah accepted the flood story, but in doing so “purified and refined it, and harmonized it with its own doctrine,” excising references to the will of the gods or of natural forces and presenting a God who posses control, transcending the will of the natural world, thus “an amoral epic from Babylonia to a moral imperative to humanity.”  A familiar text, therefore, takes on a new meaning when it is read in relationship to other traditions.

Let me suggest two other metaphors I find helpful in this context.  First, photography.  When I was young, I used to love to spend time in the darkroom.  (Do darkrooms even still exist?)  One of the most powerful darkroom techniques is to vary the amount of contrast in a print.  The key lesson I drew then, and which I commend to you now, is that photographs without much contrast are boring.  They just seem lifeless.  Turning up the contrast, though, make images sharper, more evocative.  More meaningful.  So, too, with religious understandings.

Second, I spent a remarkable Sunday one fall at my son’s soccer game.  (Did I mention that it was a championship game?  And that they won? And that my son the goalie had an amazing save to protect a 2-1 lead with only minutes left?) It was a magnificent day, sunny, not too hot, and the leaves were finally changing color.  The soccer field was surrounded by trees, in scores of colors. On my way home, away from the field, I passed a very lovely tree, its leaves a rich, deep orange.  I could not help but notice how even the most beautiful tree, standing alone, was nowhere near as interesting as the vista of different tress growing all together.  So too, I believe, with interreligous understandings.  The religious landscape of American is as colorful as it is because we can see all the colors.   And one more thought.  Trees are much safer in groves.  An isolated tree is far more likely to, say, be blown away by a storm wind.  In a forest, the trees protect each other. So, too, with interreligous understanding.

Mark Pelavin is Director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism and Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.



*Excepted from Remarks On Accepting The Jewish Chautauqua Society’s 2005 Alfred E. And Genevieve Weil Medallion Award, November 18, 2005, Houston, Texas.

One Response to “The “Why” of Interreligious Engagement, By Mark J. Pelavin”

  1. Floyd Keene says:

    Certainly a fascinating description of the intellectual enhancement that can come from learning about other religions. I am very intrigued by Mr. Stanton’s new journal.
    Learning about contrasts with other religions is all too often downplayed or neglected outright by our major religious institutions. I truly hope the Journal can help fill this gap.