Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sharpening for a Pluralistic World

“…Just as in the case of iron, when one implement sharpens another, so too do two [Torah] scholars sharpen each other when they discuss questions [of Halahkah] together..” -Talmud Bavli Ta'anit 7a

Can pluralism truly exist? This question is the topic of Jewish debate on a daily basis. Is there a way a group of people from different denominations can learn from one another without igniting another war? Can we find a way to be united somehow? These questions commonly linger in the mind of an interfaith-driven teenager like myself.

Only three months ago, I didn’t think that achieving such a goal was remotely possible. This past summer, however, my rather pessimistic expectations were exceeded. Only three months ago, I boarded an El-Al flight to Israel alongside twenty-five Jewish incoming seniors from across the country. Among the group, our beliefs and practices varied, but all of mindsets created a constant for the program: we wanted to learn from one another this summer.

Throughout the first few days after our arrival, we all attempted to be friendly, forcefully proposing casual cocktail chatter in order to “test the waters.” However, by the first weekend, controversial conversation topics began to seep out from mouths that could no longer conceal them. For the duration of the summer, we spent countless hours stargazing and debating issues that impact both the American Jewish community and the future of the state of Israel. People did not hesitate before vehemently sharing their beliefs with others, and they rocked my Jewish identity in ways that I never realized I needed.

Perhaps the most significant lesson I gained from these thought-provoking discussions was that my faith, like that of many other teens I learned, needed sharpening. Surrounded by a tolerant and pluralistic community, I felt compelled to strengthen and reexamine the beliefs that once blindly carved a path for my life. Repeatedly this summer, we were all taught that one must sharpen a knife with other knives, rather than with pillows, for a tool of any kind would never be useful otherwise. This seemingly literal concept gradually evolved into the foundation of our faith-based dialogue: while sensitivity is pivotal for communication, we were a community driven to grow. We were motivated to use the knives of our own faith to sharpen those of our peers, even if that entailed crossing the borders and boundaries we never fathomed to discover ourselves. Through the exhausting summer of spiritual growth that ignited both laughter and tears, we became friends. Today, I now have twenty-five new friends from different walks of Jewish life; we thrived in the pluralistic sanctuary we’ve created for ourselves and are prepared to expand it to our own homes.

As different as a group of Jewish teens may be, we all associated ourselves to the broad umbrella of the same faith and could easily have been united by title alone. However, in our respective communities which aren’t structured like those in Jerusalem, no one faith is the majority—making the need to create pluralism that much stronger.

Now more than ever we must face the irreligious intolerance that amplifies on a daily basis. We are living in a world where our own tribalism prevents us from seeing the faces of our neighbors. The stereotypes of other faiths that exist in our minds reflect our fear in pursuing justice. Even among parents and grandparents, thoughts of intermarriage traumatize them, immediately inhibiting any support of interfaith friendships because of the enigmatic future to which they could lead.

I, however, continue to remain hopeful, despite the many obstacles that lay before a perfect world. For little had I known, the walls of intolerance can be broken down over a circle of chairs and a breezy, star-lit Jerusalem night sky. The sense of hope that glowed among the optimists sitting in those seats, however, can travel to any zip code.

So can we achieve the same pluralism among different faiths? Absolutely. We simply need to create the dialogue that allows us to learn from one another. And perhaps, once we’ve created a safe circle of hope, we can challenge and sharpen our faiths together. 

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