The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.
Teaching about other religions in Hebrew schools is not a new idea, and in fact has been happening from the previous century till today--mainly in Reform afternoon- and Sunday schools. The lessons were mostly taught in the tenth grade Confirmation class and billed as part of the preparation for adulthood. They were designed to stimulate the intellect just prior to going out into the world, since this was usually the end of the formal religious school program.
Offering comparative religion was part of Judaism's attempt to live in the daily world--engaged with, but separated from, it at the same time. Perhaps it was an attempt to be contemporary, or even to preemptively fend off missionary activity. Whatever the reason, the basic formula for these studies was almost universally the same: "us vs. them." While the lessons were supposed to be intellectually honest, non-judgmental, and even-handed, they seldom were. Couched behind titles like "Where Judaism Differed," they offered a glimpse into the ethical system that made Judaism "clearly superior" to other religions.
This was before the phenomenon of interfaith marriage brought large numbers of children into religious schools whose relatives--including at least one of their own parents--were the "them" in the equation.
By some estimates, a third or more of the children currently in Reform religious schools are from families where at least one head of household was not born Jewish. (The other movements do not have a good sense of their corresponding numbers, which are presumably lower, but growing.) Even in conversionary households, one set of grandparents is not Jewish, so the child has probably been doing his or her own "informal" comparative religion study for years. Certainly, the old method of teaching about other religions in Jewish schools has lost its relevance: The discussion is no longer just theoretical; it now hits much closer to home.
We at the Jewish Outreach Institute encourage religious schools to initiate what they always claimed they were doing in the first place: looking at other religions openly and honestly, and creating supportive environments so open discussion can take place. The post-modern era has taught Jewish educators many things. We've learned that those who take religion seriously have much to learn from one another, even--or especially when--they come from different faith communities. And we know that Judaism has much to offer other religious traditions, as well as much to learn.
As an entrée into a more open lesson plan on comparative religion, JOI's executive director Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky offers the following thoughts:
While Judaism teaches that the Torah was "revealed" (not written) and comes from the Divine, it also demonstrates that Torah-like truths can come from a variety of sources. Wisdom literature (such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes) by definition is based on the experience of the individual, which is then applied to life. Therefore, we already acknowledge that we can learn from the "wisdom experiences" of others. How can we incorporate the life lessons of great teachers like the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, among others, who found the tremendous strength of their convictions through different religious traditions and texts?
Tolerance and respect come when we better understand the "other," and greater understanding is a key ingredient in maintaining our increasingly diverse Jewish community. A non-judgmental study of other faiths in Jewish religious schools is more important now than ever before.