"I will make of you a great nation, / And I will bless you; / I will make your name great, / And you shall be a blessing." (Genesis 12:2)
"And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations." (Genesis 17:5)
"I give the land you sojourn in to you and to your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession. I will be their God." (Genesis 17:8)
Abram is a blessing to the world precisely because his offspring wandered off in different directions so that today all three monotheistic religions look to him as their ancestor. He is a blessing to the world because he belongs to the world.
By adding a syllable, changing Abram to Abraham, the name became a description of his task: to be "the father of a multitude of nations." For any religion or sect to claim a franchise on the first patriarch is to distort his mission beyond recognition.
The interfaith work that today goes on among the "Abrahamic religions" is a concerted effort to vindicate that mission. Too often we become so fixated on the political and social reasons for reaching out to other faiths that we forget the theological foundation that we share with those faiths. We must not ignore the fact that the Torah wanted Abraham's offspring to be different from others yet part of the same family.
Unfortunately, humans find it difficult to fathom the significance of the inherent tension that exists in the unity in multiplicity described in the text. We don't quite know how to cope with the truth that my ancestor is also yourancestor. As a result, we've often formulated our faiths in opposition to the others in an effort to diminish, if not annihilate, those with whom we disagree.
One of several reasons why Christians and Muslims are the major culprits is that, for most of history, they had power and Jews did not. In recent times, however, the relationship has become more symmetrical. Though Jews continue to be a miniscule minority in terms of numbers, their return to the land God promised to Abraham has helped to restore some balance. To our great surprise, even embarrassment, we've become important players on the world stage.
Most Jews, however, don't see this as an added reason to engage in interfaith work. They believe that reaching out to Judaism's sister and daughter religions will weaken the faith and the people of Israel. Taking a Jew out of the ghetto doesn't guarantee taking the ghetto out of a Jew.
Today isolation is a much greater threat to Jewish continuity than coexistence. Unless we help to realize Abraham's mission, we are in danger of promoting extremist fringes in each tradition and, through our own inertia, pushing them into the center.
The existence of the State of Israel is a celebration of the Jews' claim to God's promise to make the Land of Israel "an everlasting possession." Jewish sovereignty has made it possible for the Jewish people to come home, emerge from powerlessness, and return to history. Though our power is relatively small, our influence is considerable―and so is our responsibility.
To act with authority in interfaith work, it behooves us to promote and celebrate K'lal Yisrael, "the community of Israel," and the cohesiveness within the Jewish people that comes with pluralism.
It's not a coincidence that the most effective institution of Progressive (Reform) Judaism in Israel is its Center for Jewish Pluralism. As Reform Jews all over the world have been blessed through reaching out to, and working with, other faiths, so Reform Jews in Israel have sought to promote pluralism within the Jewish state.
The Torah affirms that pluralism―both within the faith and between faiths―is an integral part of our heritage. While Ishmael separated from Abraham's son Isaac, and Esau from Isaac's son Jacob, the brothers came together to bury their fathers. Similarly, the descendants of Jacob who became the tribes of Israel separated from each other. They came together in emergencies, but otherwise they led different and independent lives.
It's difficult to speculate whether such diversity made for survival in biblical times, but it's easy to show that it does so in our days. For though still divided into tribes of sorts, such divisions strengthen the Jewish people and encourage the vitality of contemporary Judaism.
Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora have become something akin to different tribes. In their separate existence they strengthen and support each other. To ensure the survival of the Jewish people, Israel and the Diaspora need each other. Their mutual existence makes for the renewal of Judaism and progress of Jewry.
Sephardim and Ashkenazim each have a long and different history. In Israel, but also in countries like France and Canada, they now live side by side. Just as Ashkenazim were once instrumental in opening lines of communication with their Christian neighbors, so now Sephardim must help us to broaden the dialogue with Islamic peoples, whom they understand well from their countries of origin. But to make that possible, we must first affirm each other with greater sincerity and integrity than hitherto. Before we can preach pluralism to others, we must practice it ourselves.
Religious and secular Jews have formed themselves into different tribes. Yet religion without the corrective of secularism will become rigid, even petrified, whereas secularism without exposure to religion is in danger of becoming Jewishly irrelevant. The interaction reminds us that the strict division between religionists and secularists, though real, is ultimately futile, for Judaism comprises both.
In our time, there are near-tribal divisions between Reform and Orthodox Jews. However, despite the hostilities, particularly painful in Israel, Orthodoxy has been "softened" by Reform, and Reform has been "warmed up" by Orthodoxy. Their symbiotic nature must not be overlooked. Perhaps the Torah planned both the divisions and the connections, for religious differences are as old as Judaism.
If pluralism between the religions makes for peace and harmony, pluralism within Judaism makes for K'lal Yisrael. The contention of these reflections is that you can't have the one without the other.
By the Way
The symphony of Jewish religious life results when each denomination plays well its own instrument. To create the orchestra, each denomination has to realize that the quality of the richness of the music together will exceed anything they can produce separately. Harmony results from differences coordinated not suppressed. While we may play different instruments, we must be committed to the goals of the orchestra to produce a symphony. As soon as one part starts to do his own thing or to believe that his music will be superior by withdrawing from the whole, everybody loses. (Reuven Kimelman, "Judaism, Denominationalism, and Pluralism," in Perspectives [New York City: CLAL-National Jewish Resource Center for Learning and Leadership, 1986], p. 17)
Are you involved in interfaith activity, either through your synagogue or in some other way? If not, why? If so, do you find the work effective?
Do you think that the sovereign State of Israel is more accommodating to its Muslim and Christian minorities than were Christian and Muslim states to their Jewish minorities? Can you think of examples?
Spokespersons for Orthodox Judaism speak of Jewish unity; exponents of Reform Judaism speak of Jewish pluralism. What are the differences between the two terms, and what are the practical implications of each stance?
Tensions between groups (tribes) in Judaism have always existed. How do today's tensions compare with those of past ages?
At the time of this writing in 2004, Dow Marmur was rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, Canada.