Panel Discussion: interView with Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill

Posted on May 16th, 2010 | Filed under InterViews, Video

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interView with Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill

Response by Nathan Render

Nathan Render

Rabbi Brill’s question immediately reminds me of the first interfaith motto I learned during my early work as an interfaith activist in high school: Nathan, you are the scholar of your own experience. Generally speaking, as a Jewish person, I should not feel responsible for being a spokesman of the entire Jewish people. Instead, I should enter the conversation by articulating my distinctiveness and how I actively live out my identity as a person of faith. Now obviously, it isn’t the perfect paragon of interfaith slogans, but it resonated with me as a young person newly engaged in this work with my peers. I felt a constant tension between accurately representing my entire faith and fully representing myself as a Jew.

I do think it helps to answer the questions Rabbi Brill presents. Yes, I believe interfaith work can be facilitated in the space outside of tradition and theology, but not outside of one’s self. However, one’s own “Jewish-ness” (in my case) or “faith-ness” is frequently informed by engagement with tradition, making individual self and collective tradition inextricably linked. For me, people willing to share their distinctive approach to faith provide for a much more productive, meaningful, and interesting dialogue. The conversation is transformed from “What does Judaism have to say about intermarriage?” to, “What does Nathan, as a Jew, say about interfaith marriage?” Similarly, I think interfaith conversation is also influenced by individuals’ other identities (cultural background, interests, sexual orientation) which also drive the conversation farther than tradition and traditional texts.

Finally, I would like to add that Rabbi Brill’s beliefs about tolerance also resonate strongly with me. He says, “Tolerance doesn’t actually require you to know anything about another religion because you can just say we are all tolerant and that’s the end of it.” I believe tolerance is undoubtedly a strong foundation, but ultimately think we should constantly push ourselves and each other beyond the passivity of tolerance to a place of deep mutual respect and understanding.

Response by Jen Bailey

At the heart of Rabbi Dr. Brill’s question is a challenge to think critically about the methodology and process we employ to engage others in interfaith dialogue. Personally, my inclination is to believe that it is very difficult to separate interfaith dialogue from religious tradition and text. The practice of engaging in a religious tradition and reading of spiritual texts are often the most visible and outward expression of an individual’s faith. Our traditions connect us not only a higher power but to a legacy of other practitioners who have prayed the same prayers, sung the same songs, and recited the same scriptures. These elements root us in the essence of what it means to be a member of our faith community and grant us the ability to identify similar patterns in other traditions. Textual study is often one of the most effective means of identifying these patterns because it literally brings tradition to the table and allows people to have a concrete starting point to begin a dialogue about their traditions.

Response by C. Nikole Saulsberry

“Can interfaith work be done outside of tradition, outside of traditional text?”

Ironically, I was never asked what in The Bible specifically inspires me to do interfaith work until I was interviewed for the Daily Chautauquan last summer. Needless to say, I was a little less than prepared for an answer. I knew why I believed I should love the “other”, why I should be respectful, why we should work in common action for the common good, but not specifically why I as a Christian had a vested interest in interfaith work, as encouraged by biblical text. When interviewed I was caught off guard, and felt my lack of an answer signified and lack of internalization – that my interfaith work was a nicety rather than a necessity.

This experience leads me to assert that yes; interfaith work can be done outside of tradition, with the crucial caveat stating that tradition and traditional text need to be part of the experience. My own interfaith history began outside of tradition when I met friends of different faith traditions who moved my heart to accept that Truth doesn’t just dwell in Christianity. This happened through conversations, shared experiences, but seldom through traditional texts. It was not unlike the mystical experiences Rabbi Dr. Brill talks about. From there I developed a knowledge for tradition and began studying other religious texts and diving deeper into learning the traditions in other faiths.

At that time in my life, I was not ready for a traditional approach to interfaith work. I needed to see the beauty and similarities in other faiths from the universal perspective in order to have the courage to challenge my own tradition’s texts to find the interfaith message therein. Without the outside experience I would have never been able to appreciate the interfaith beauty in 1 John 4:16: God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them

Response by Hafsa Kanjwal

I personally do not think interfaith work needs to have a strong foundation in theology. I think for a long time this has been the case, and has limited the scope of this type of work to scholars or religious leaders. Addressing issues that relate to on the ground realities—poverty, war, environmental concerns, etc—are issues that I think are paramount for the interfaith community to address, and do not necessarily require much theological understanding or intense engagement with scripture.

Rabbi Brill makes a good point when he says that we must learn to go beyond tolerance and make an active effort to learn about each other and not just “tolerate” each other. I’m intrigued by the book he wrote on Jewish responses to other religions over time and I think it would be interesting to see how this response compares/contrasts to other religious traditions, especially Islam.

Another point that Rabbi Brill made was regarding universalism. I agree that we should try to steer clear of a universalist approach to engaging with our individual religious traditions, especially when we’re in an interfaith setting. I have seen this happen on many occasions, as people feel inclined to universalize their religious tradition because they feel that is the best way they should represent it in that context. This creates a superficial space for engagement.

2 Responses to “Panel Discussion: interView with Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill”

  1. Cecilia Tan says:

    Such wonderful and insightful thoughts from a group young people committed both to their faith and to inter-religious dialogue. There is no need I find, to sacrifice our desire to find out more about our faith and tradition, including the scriptures that are the basis of our beliefs, for inter-faith dialogue to occur. I have found from attending to my own lived experiences with others, in relation to what my faith tradition teaches, through exploring the texts and scriptures of my tradition, I have become more accepting and appreciative or other faith traditions. The obstacles in inter-faith dialogue is often due to a reluctance to firstly, engage in historical criticism of our own religion and to ask questions first of ourselves and how the tradition interfaces with society over the ages as well as how it interfaces in the contemporary context. Interpretation of scripture needs to be grounded on context and dialogue, with the text, with the tradition, with ourselves, with the religious community we belong to and to the wider community. This can enrichour experiences of the Holy and a fuller appreciation of others. For example, lately I have immersed myself in trying to understand the concept of suffering in the Christian tradition and have found that it required me to delve somewhat into the Jewish sense of ‘memory and rememberance’ which really is part of my own Christian heritage, and the importance of accessing memory, as a basis for keeping to the fore authentic compassion. To this I will always be grateful to the richness that is the Jewish faith, as it demonstrates to me in real and concrete ways the authenticity of living out my faith. I am sure, a similar dialogue with those of the Islamic faith can only enrich my own understanding of myself and others. This is a personal goal. The danger in all traditions are not the teachings, but the people who unreasonably cling on to a rigid classicist interpretation of their religious teachings regardless of the changes occuring in history, thus not leaving room for possibilities.

  2. Cecilia Tan says:

    PS. The fact that there is this forum is a sign of great hope and an affirmation that there are many willing to have the conversations imperative for peace and reconciliation.