Teaching about Other Religions at Sukkat Shalom

By Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon


The mission of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Illinois, is to welcome the intermarried and the unaffiliated. To that end, we have developed a unique a program of family and adult education: Exploring Our Texts Through Diverse Eyes.

Through serious exploration of Biblical texts, adults and children learn to compare and contrast their diverse religious backgrounds and traditions while sharing the core values taught in the Torah. Our education program involves the entire family. Parents and children join together twice a month to explore stories, values, and traditions. A combination of parallel and joint study deepens the learning experience for all. The curriculum is largely text based, with children learning the key Biblical stories while parents are exposed to serious text study complementary to their children’s learning. As the adults study with me, we explore the ways in which the text teaches us about our modern day relationships with spouses, children and friends.

Here are examples of how we have approached our discussion of specific Biblical texts, from three sessions which focused on the story of Abraham in Genesis.

Lech Lecha
Why does God choose Abraham? How do Jews use Midrash to “fill in the blanks” of a story? Why do we remember the story of Abraham breaking the idols? What is the nature of myth? Why must Abraham move to a new place? For Christians, why does God choose Abraham? What is the nature of grace? Are actions a necessary means to achieve that grace?

How do Jews view the story of God testing Abraham? How do Jews understand God’s command not to sacrifice his son or do him any harm? Why for Jews is it important that God would never ask for a son to be sacrificed? In what way does Christianity view this story as a rehearsal for Jesus’ sacrifice? How does Christianity relate these same events to the Gospel narratives?

Choosing Rebecca
Why does Abraham direct his servant Eliezer to search for a wife only from his birthplace? Why is he cautioned not to take a Canaanite woman. Why do immigrant societies often seek a spouse from the “Old Country?” Why is endogenous marriage so important? In what ways do parents communicate their preferences for their children’s spouses? What are the subsequent tensions in the home of Isaac and Rebecca?

In many of the adult discussions and in the class sessions with older children, leaders of other religions join in dialogue with me to help explore the ways in which these texts help define our religious and spiritual lives. At various times distinguished guest scholars, both Christian (Reverend Philip Culbertson, Dominic Crossan, Father John Pawlikowski, and Father Tom Ventura, and others) and Jewish (Rabbis David Teutsch, Jacob Staub, Michael Cook, Lawrence Hoffman, Ron Wolfson, Professor Everett Fox, and others) have engaged in dialogue with me, exploring the texts and their interpretation, with our congregation in attendance.

In this way (and others), we acknowledge and validate the richness of our backgrounds. Engaging the adults in open discussion relating to their varied backgrounds helps them to clarify their understanding of the major teachings of Judaism. We encourage them to integrate the teachings and to then transmit the inherent values to their children.

In various years, we have studied the early stories of Genesis, the wanderings of Abraham to Jacob, the life of Joseph, the story of Moses and the exodus, and the teachings of the sages through Pirke Avot. This coming year, we will explore prayer and the prayer book.

Recognizing that the members of Sukkat Shalom come from diverse backgrounds, our educational programs welcome and embrace the diversity, incorporating religious differences as a specific teaching tool leading to richer understanding of our religious and cultural heritage, and helping us in our search for authentic spiritual meaning in our lives.


About Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon is the founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill. After 15 years as a rabbi in the Chicago area, he established Sukkat Shalom in 1995 as a unique and innovative congregation serving a diverse population with a specific mission of outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated individuals and families. Rabbi Gordon was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980.