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Why Interfaith Dialogue Doesn't Work -- And What We Can Do About It

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I have been participating in interfaith dialogue as a rabbi and Jewish leader for more than 30 years, and most of the time it just doesn't work.

Most of the time -- and it is painful for me to admit this -- it is terribly boring. Most of the time there is a tendency to manufacture consensus, whether it exists or not. Most of the time we go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Most of the time we cover the same ground that we covered last month or the month before. And far too often we finish our session without really knowing the people across the table and what makes them tick religiously.

And most of we time we are satisfied with mouthing a few noble, often-repeated sentiments. Thus, we affirm the importance of mutual understanding, tolerance and dialogue; we assert that all human beings are created in the image of God; we proclaim that despite our differences, all of our traditions preach love of humankind and service to humanity. Nothing is wrong with these sentiments, of course; in conceptual terms, I believe in them all. But if we don't dig beneath the surface and focus on substance rather than rhetoric, they mean very little.

The result is that most of the time, interfaith discussions are simply excruciating, irrelevant to me and to the world around me. Why then have I been so involved for so many years?

The reason is that very occasionally, something extraordinary happens: One of these conversations changes me, binds me to my colleagues, advances my understanding of myself and others, and adds texture and depth to my own religious beliefs and convictions.

In thinking back on these moments, it seems to me that there are three things that make for a "good" dialogue and that turn tiresome interfaith conversations into meaningful religious moments.

First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences. Platitudes are set aside when, as representatives of our faith traditions, we cease to be embarrassed by the particular; when we put aside the search for the lowest common denominator that most often characterizes -- and trivializes -- our discussions; and when we recognize that absent a clear affirmation of who we are, how we are different and what we truly believe, all our conversations are likely to come to nothing.

Second, interreligious exchanges become compelling when my colleagues and partners give expression to their religious passions. I am drawn in when they share with me their deepest beliefs and strangest customs, no matter how radically other they are from my own. And the sharing of religious passions should lead to passionate debate, in which we struggle with the really hard questions: What happens when conflicting beliefs lead to conflicting interests? What do we do about those areas where differences cannot be bridged and must be dealt with?

Third, interreligious dialogue truly touches us when we can discuss what we all know to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own traditions. We all tend toward the conviction that there are some elements of our religious beliefs and practice that stand above and apart from what other religions offer, and it is liberating when we are able to acknowledge this and then explain why we think that way, without apology but open to the honest reactions of those around us.

Other high points come from those moments when we all say what it is about our own traditions and communities that we don't like and then talk frankly about why that it is so. And I am always delighted when we stop focusing on talk and start planning to work together -- and really mean it.

As I said, these things happen rarely. I, like others around the interfaith table, am often sitting there just going through the motions, distracted by other things and caught in the same old patterns and clichés that predominate in these settings. Still, from time to time, we find a way to speak from the heart. When we do, God's presence -- variously felt and differently experienced -- creates an atmosphere of faith, partnership and common purpose in the room. For those rare moments, I will continue to make the effort, without regrets.

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