By: Rabbi Bruce Kadden
When we think of harmony, we naturally think of music. Now, my Cantor makes fun of me when I try to talk about music, but I think that it is an appropriate metaphor to help us understand the topic of barriers to harmony.
We know that in music harmony occurs when each of us sings one’s own part and they blend together to form a beautiful chord. Now, not all musical notes go together well. Each of us can also sings notes that just don’t blend nicely with other notes.
In that case, the tendency might be for us to change the note we are singing, to try a half-step lower or a half-step higher, hoping to be in harmony. While that might make for a pleasant sound, it is problematic, because it changes who we are and the note that we are meant to sing. The challenge we face is to continue to sing our notes and to find those notes that, together with the notes of others, produce harmony.
In reflecting on the barriers to harmony, three challenges come to mind:
1. The priorities of each of our communities.
One of the greatest challenges we all face is the lack of resources; we do not have the time, money and energy to do everything that we know we should be doing and that we want to do. We all have to make difficult choices.
Now, in a vacuum, it would be easy to make these choices. If my passion was for interfaith relations, I would spend most of my time and energy on that topic. If your passion was for social justice, then you spend most of your time and energy on that issue. But the reality is that most of us have a passion for a number of things so we try to do it all.
Furthermore, most of us are part of communities which also have their priorities and passions, not mention the more mundane responsibilities which we need to deal with on a day to day business.
For about the last 25 years, there has been a debate in the Jewish community about our priorities and whether we should work to address the inward challenges to our community or the outward challenges to our community. There are a number of reasons that the debate emerged when it did. First, some community leaders saw significant numbers of Jews involved in the anti-War movement, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement but not in efforts to support their own community. The debate was also a response to the emphasis on Outreach which the Reform movement embraced under the leadership of Rabbi Alexander Schindler in the 1970s.
But it also reflected a renewed interest –among many Jews– in such topics as Jewish mysticism and Musar literature, which focuses on personal moral conduct and growth. At the same time there seemed to be reduced interest in social justice.
And although none of these issues directly addressed interfaith relations, the message was clear: we need to get our own house in order, deal with the many challenges that we face as a community from intermarriage to assimilation, rather than spend so much effort in reaching out to others.
I have always felt that this conflict was a false dichotomy, that it was not an either/or. We can deal with the important internal issues while maintaining our commitment to social justice and interfaith activities which are vital for our community to remain strong and vibrant in the 21st century.
2. Those within each of our communities who, for a variety of reasons, don’t believe that we should interact with those people who we can at times have strong disagreements with.
The second barrier to the harmony we seeks comes from those within each of our communities who question whether we should be interacting with others, with whom we have significant areas of disagreement. In the Jewish community, this has been most clearly felt in the area of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, where the ability to speak openly and honestly has been stifled both internally in our community and in our interactions with those in other communities. There are some who do not want to sit and listen to the other, those who are not interested in dialogue.
But this concern goes beyond the Middle East conflict. For example, a number of actions of the Catholic Church have led some to question whether Jewish-Catholic dialogue should continue. These included the Kurt Waldheim affair, the plan to establish a Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz, the effort to reach out to the Society of Pope Pius X which included Bishop Richard Williamson, a notorious Holocaust denier, efforts toward the beatification of Pope Pius XII, and the permission to use more traditional Good Friday liturgy. These issues and other pronouncements have led some in the Jewish community to question whether the Catholic Church is retreating from its historic Nostra Aetate statement in the Second Vatican Council.
Each of these topics is certainly appropriate for debate and discussion; I would imagine that internally they have provoked interesting discussion. But even taken together, they should not prevent active and meaningful dialogue. We cannot allow these real and sometimes difficult conflicts to be used as excuses to retreat from opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and discussion.
3. The reluctance, at times, to confront the tough issues.
Even without such pressures we sometimes are reluctant to confront the tough issues with one another. When I first arrived in Salinas, CA many years ago and wanted to develop an interfaith dialogue program with one of the local churches, I was told about a recent interfaith effort that had failed.
It seemed that the discussion had at some point turned to the Holocaust, including the role of the Christian church. From the point of view of the Jewish community, they were just sharing well-established facts, but for the Christians, it was interpreted as an effort to lay a guilt trip on them for something they had nothing to do with and were just barely beginning to understand.
It is vital that we deal with the tough issues, but that we do so in ways that do not seek to offer guilt or blame, but instead promote real dialogue and understand.
Temple Beth El has been engaged with interfaith dialogue with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and Bethany Presbyterian Church for a few years. This year we are reading Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, in anticipation of the author’s visit to our congregation this April.
In the book’s introduction, she writes, “If Jews come to the table with a sense of victimization and Christians come with a sense of guilt, nothing will be accomplished.” In seeking to achieve harmony, we cannot avoid the difficult issues. But at the same time, we must address them sensitively and constructively, in order to grow and understand.
To paraphrase a Chasidic story, if we truly want to love each other, we have to know what hurts the other. Being able to discuss the tough issues, including to share what really hurts us, is important if we to achieve true harmony.
Bruce Kadden has served as rabbi of Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington since July, 2004. He is Past President of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis. He received an A.B. degree in Religious Studies from Stanford University and was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1981. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from HUC-JIR in 2006 for 25 years of service as a rabbi. Rabbi Kadden is past president of the board of the Fair Housing Center of Washington.