Helene Dunbar by day is a marketing and communications manager for a Jewish non-profit in New York City. By night she writes about Irish traditional music for Irish Music Magazine and other publications.
An Academic Dialogue Seeks to Break Down Religious Walls
Review of Christians and Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other, by Mary C. Boys and Sara S. Lee (Skylight Path Publishing, 2006).
"Tolerance… does not inevitably lead to understanding the other, it merely permits people to live alongside those who differ from them without demeaning them," explain Mary C. Boys and Sara S. Lee in their new book Christians and Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other. "We want [people] to learn about the religious other--and in so doing, also to learn something profound about their own tradition."
The book is structured specifically to address the questions and issues that have come up in the authors' attempts to open dialogues and break down preconceived, and often subconscious, assumptions held by Christians and Jews about their own religions and each other's. Using their own experiences as examples, the authors focus on five educational projects they were instrumental in developing; the educational and religious theologies that went into the projects' creation; and comments from the participants as a guide-post to their success. The result would be, I'm sure, a resourceful tool for educators or clergy involved in the creation of interfaith groups.
The authors are well versed in their own religious doctrines. Boys is the Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary and has written extensively on the role of Judaism in Christian thought. Lee is director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. They have won awards for their work, have together visited Israel and Auschwitz, and have opened a personal dialogue on the deep-seated feelings and questions that have arisen from those visits. Together, they have been structuring seminars around the world in order to unite people on a topic that has historically divided them.
Not surprisingly, much of Boys' and Lee's focus is on the similarities that the religions share, but it is here that their greatest differences can also be recognized. The religions share so much of their scriptures but differ greatly on their interpretations and historical contexts. At the deepest, underlying level, the conversations that Boys and Lee helped to construct boil down to the fact that "Jews don't so much have to change their theology as they do their self-understanding based on history. Christians, on the other hand, have to reconstitute their theology because so much of it is grounded in an inadequate understanding of Judaism." They write that, "Christians typically need to address serious questions about the validity of a theology in which Judaism has been superseded by Christianity. Jews, for whom Christianity poses no apparent theological challenge, typically need to confront how much of Jewish identity has been shaped by identifying as a victim, particularly of Christian persecutions."
Unfortunately, anyone reading this book hoping for guidance on a more personal level might be disappointed, as the book takes an intellectualized and group-oriented approach to interfaith dialogues. The examples given in the book and the suggestions and guidelines for opening dialogues all center on large-group dynamics and structures appropriate to educator-led symposiums. Not that the questions aren't thought-provoking on an individual basis, but it is clear that the authors successfully set out to share the knowledge they've honed through larger-scale programs.
Also, a certain amount of distance is created by the heaviness of the language and the denseness of the structure. There isn't much room for personally connecting to this work, even when the authors are recounting their own stories, which is a shame because reading of their joint visits to Auschwitz and various Holocaust memorials should have opened an emotional door in the reader that was kept closed due to the book's very academic nature.
While it is possible that an individual might be motivated by this book to examine how he or she, as a Jew or Christian, react to the "other", sometimes through years of ingrained subconscious training, Christians and Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other probably won't help you understand your Jewish or Christian partner or friend any better.