Why it is worth walking on eggshells:


A Jewish contribution to the interfaith conversation

A contribution to the symposium In our Time: the ties between Catholics and Other faiths in celebration of the anniversary of Nostra Aetate in Adelaide, Sunday, October 28, 2007.

At the outset, I want to lay certain cards on the table. I am not an expert in matters of theology, nor could I describe myself as an expert in Judaism.

But my participation in the Council for Christians and Jews is predicated on the strong belief that it’s worth having conversation with people you know you disagree with.

And that the conversation is an exemplar of the process of “healing the broken earth”. That was the title of the first international conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews to be held in the Southern hemisphere, which was held in Sydney in July 2007.

The etiquette of this conversation can be described in terms of the virtues of walking on eggshells.

The ethics of dialogue is modelled on Martin Buber’s formulation of the I/Thou relationship. It is a conversation based on mutual respect, where we are careful in expressing our views to be more than normally mindful of those of our interlocutor.

Respect involves the willingness to listen with humility, to listen with intention to learn and comprehend, not just to debate.

The nature of religious encounter is different from political encounter. The rules are that you do not seek to change other people’s beliefs but that you understand them fully — as they understand them.

You also hold the view that they genuinely hold their beliefs with the same or more passion that you hold yours and that they hold them with the same benevolent intention that you hold yours. As Rabbi Raymond Apple says: “Our task is not to deprecate, demonise, delegitimise or diminish the other, not damn the other or the unbeliever as a heretic or rogue but to recognise their right to be themselves.”1  Apple then cites Martin Buber: “In a genuine dialogue, each of the partners, even when standing in opposition to the other, heeds, affirms and confirms the opponent as an existing other.”

The Jewish perspective of dialogue

In this partnership of dialogue, we are simultaneously “representative” of our religious/cultural narrative and also speak from the particular position of our individual gloss on those beliefs.

I am sometimes painfully aware that I am who I am in my own complexity at the same time as you see me (and, I hold myself forward) as a representative of a religious “other”.

Thus the question is not just: what do Jews believe about X? But also, and more dangerously, what do I believe and what do I feel about those beliefs.

To put this in context, I will provide some biography.

Although I have always known I was Jewish, it largely made sense to me in the context of my refugee background. Both of my parents were post-Holocaust refugees from Hungary. My father’s family lived in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. His father made a living as a salesman of sewing machines, so while he had few Christian friends, he had many Christian customers. He remained very aware of his position as a member of a not very tolerated minority in a strongly anti-Semitic and highly reactionary Hungary.

As Hungary moved inexorably towards fascism before the war, my father became active in the workers’ movement and lost any belief in God or practical connection with Judaism. From 1938 on, the Hungarian government put young Jewish men into forced labour for the Hungarian army. This, paradoxically, and despite the best efforts of the army, and later the fascist Arrow Cross and the Nazis, accounted for the survival of many young Jewish men, including my father and his three brothers and my mother’s oldest brother.

My mother, on the other hand, was raised in a small town called Kiskunfelegyhaza, in the south east of Hungary, about 130 kilometers from Budapest. Her parents were immigrants from Transylvania, the seat of the most deeply fundamentalist Jewish practice. Her father was a conscript in the First World War, and was interested in secular ideas, but she was raised in a deeply Orthodox family.

Her father eked out a bare living by hawking haberdashery in small country towns. My mother had eight brothers and sisters and, to relieve the pressure, at the age of 12 was sent from her little country town to Budapest, to be apprenticed as a seamstress. Her brother was sent to a yeshiva, or rabbinic seminary, but the war put an end to any rabbinic career he may have had in mind, and I might add, any specifically Jewish practice.

At the age of 15, my mother was sure she would be struck dead for carrying a handbag on Shabbat. By the middle of 1944, her parents and four of her brothers and sisters had been transported to Auschwitz and murdered, as had my father’s parents and most of their extended families. Hitler didn’t make distinctions about the degree to which one was a practicing religious Jew. My mother survived due to an accident of birth which meant she didn’t “look” Jewish and this allowed her to “pass” as a Christian — and because of the kindness and courage of a young municipal clerk who fell in love with her and, at considerable risk to himself and his family, hid her.

The Holocaust meant that my father became more confirmed in his left-wing atheism and my mother, while not an atheist, rejected and was deeply angry at the God who, in her eyes, could not or would not, lift a finger to save her parents and half her family, or many like them who believed implicitly in God and believed fervently that God would save them.

For some time, I have been in slow transition from my father’s militant humanist atheism. So, he now says, has he. Occasionally, I have verged towards my mother’s position.

I am now fascinated by the traditions and culture of Judaism and my life has been deeply enriched by reclaiming Jewish identity and participating in a liberal Jewish community.

My wife is not Jewish. She is, nevertheless, a very supportive partner and a welcome visitor in our congregation. In the eyes of Orthodox Judaism, because my wife is not Jewish, my daughter is not Jewish. In her own eyes, she is, but like many Jewish twenty-somethings, she barely sets foot in a synagogue.

These are the complexities with which contemporary Judaism must deal.

Part of the urgency in dialogue from the perspective of the Jewish partner is dealing with the legacy of the centuries of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe. We wrestle with the degree to which that history provides perspectives on the ability to enter into dialogue with both individual Christians and Christian theologies. For many of us, sixty years after the calamity of the Holocaust is still too soon to enter into dialogue.

All Jews remain deeply aware of our prototypical position as the ethnic, cultural and religious Other. And for some of us, part of the psychological legacy of that historical position is discomfort in remaining Other and some discomfort in not being Other.

Thus Jews operate in a peculiarly complex position in the dialogue. We are not just a faith; we are, among other things, a “people” — many of us are secular, agnostic or atheist. We are “at home” in secular society, constantly exposed to our non-Jewish counterparts, and to a great extent absorbed into a secular society. We have a great investment in the freedom to be complexly ourselves in a context of secularity.

I think this puts us into a very delicate position in the dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Like Muslims, we are aware of centuries of Christian contempt and rejection and what Edward Said calls “Orientalism”, the response of the Christian West to the psychic threat of the Muslim and Jewish other. At the same time, we have our own, much shorter lived, but desperately felt differences with Islam, especially over the contested nature of the State of Israel.

(Personally, I run a linguistic test on pronouncements about the so-called problem of Islamic communities in Western civilization or the Australian communty. When I read politicians’ comments about the difficulties of integration of Islamic or African communities, I substitute the word “Jewish” for the mention of Islam and Muslim. It’s a profoundly unsettling test to run on the pronouncements of politicians and public figures.)

What can religions contribute to the healing?

At the conference I mentioned earlier, Rabbi Apple raised a powerful question about the hubris of all religions imagining that we can indeed have any impact on the political, economic, ecological, racial and cultural brokenness of this earth. Is it not indeed laughable that religions of any sort, which are increasingly marginalised by the hegemonic ideology of consumer hedonism, could have any impact at all?

What indeed can religions contribute to this healing?

For me the healing begins in two things: some notion of transcendence and the practice of dialogue.

By transcendence, I mean a perspective on existence by which the human is not the only measure of things.

Our community was recently involved in a multifaith project called Project Abraham, where representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths, among other things, went into primary classrooms in regional South Australia and New South Wales and spoke about the similarities of the central tenets of our religions. One such visit was to Port Augusta, where a minister, a rabbi and an imam spoke.

Our former Rabbi, Patty Kopstein, reported that not only did children in Port Augusta not know who Abraham was (if not the 16th president of the United State), they did not know who God was.

For me as a former religious atheist and Marxist, this was a tremendous shock, because not knowing the concept of God — even to ultimately reject it — is a symbol of a lack of awareness of a scale of values and being that puts the human preoccupation with consumerist getting and spending into a perspective. Because, it seems to me that without a concept of God, it is hard to frame the concept of “godliness” in our more elevated understanding of our humanity.

The other thing that religious dialogue can show is that there are ways in which our understanding, not so much of the details of each other’s faith but of the moral and ethical impacts of that faith — represent the ability of the Other to appreciate and participate in our “humanity”. Through dialogue we know that a person who holds such beliefs — whether we accept those beliefs  or not — is, in the profound Yiddish term, a mensch – literally a person, but more deeply an integrated person of dignity, compassion and full humanity

This claim of an essential humanity that participates in “godliness” allows for the compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation that underlay Bishop Tutu’s invention of the truth and reconciliation commission. It underlies the subterranean river of reconciliation between white Australia and Indigenous Australia. It represents the promise of a deeper humanity to which all religions lay claim.

To me, this is the gift that the religions, understood in their ideal form — not through the frailties, dogmas and jealousies of their adherents — offer.

  1. Apple, R (2007) “ Healing the Rift between Religions”, Keynote Address at the International Conference of the International Council of Christians and Jews in Sydney, 9 July 2007, viewed November 1, 2007

Ron Hoenig is the Jewish Co-Chair of the Council of Christians and Jews (SA)