01/18/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

Internal Diversity and Intra-Faith Conversations

Did you hear about the Orthodox Jewish men who curse and spit on elementary school kids as they walk to school?

Waiting for the punchline?

Sorry, there isn't one.

Just a couple weeks ago, a story came to light after 8-year-old Naama Margolese complained to her mother that she was too scared to go to school. She explained that men would stand on the sidewalk and terrorize the young girls because they weren't dressed conservatively enough.

As someone who practices religion personally and studies religion academically, this story tears me up inside. There's so much I want to say about this. A lot of it is probably obvious, and a lot has already been said. But I do think this story raises an important question that we tend to overlook.

How do we deal with internal diversity?

Most efforts towards religious dialogue emphasize relationships across traditions. These conversations work on an "inter-faith" level and play an important role in connecting people of various backgrounds and worldviews with one another. At the same time though, I don't hear much about "intra-faith" dialogues. I think it would be incredibly useful to have a forum where people with different interpretations of shared traditions could gather and share their perspectives.

We've benefited immensely from opening our minds to inter-faith conversations, and there's so much to be gained by embracing intra-faith dialogues.

I have my own challenges in dealing with internal diversity. I often catch myself thinking about religion exclusively in terms of ideas and beliefs, and I have to remind myself that there's a lot more to it than that. It takes a conscious effort to remember that religion is practiced and interpreted by individuals with all sorts of unique life experiences, and that it would only be natural for people to view the world from different perspectives.

In other words, internal diversity is the norm -- no religious community is homogenous.

And while our society has come to place a strong emphasis on accepting people from other religions, we don't really try to understand alternative interpretations within our own traditions.

It's like Muslims who can talk about the status of different prophets with Christians and Jews, but can't have that same conversation with other Muslims.

It's like Sikhs who are willing to listen to other Hindu and Buddhist views on vegetarianism, but dismiss one another the moment they hear a different viewpoint.

It's like Jews who are able to live with people of various cultural and religious backgrounds, but who spit and curse at other Jews who dress differently.

I understand why it may be difficult for people of faith to accept a different interpretation than their own, but to me, the example of the 8-year-old girl is a reminder of what's at stake here. It's too important to keep neglecting, and I'm convinced that it's worth our while.

It seems to me that being able to better reconcile the differences we encounter in our lives will help us maintain our humanity.