Interfaith: Time To Keep an Open Mind… Perhaps

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series interfaith conference

I hear the word, “Interfaith,” and I shudder a bit.

So do many of you from the various comments, emails, and Facebook messages I received after the last post.

Here is the general consensus from that correspondence: Interfaith is a pointless exercise that involves well-meaning types pretending their differences don’t exist, and basically doing not a whole lot beyond smiling and being a bit disingenuous.

Of course, things start to sound a bit more exciting when activities are referred to as “guerrilla interfaith adventures,” – but still, the organised form seems so dreary and ultimately a waste of time.

The thing is, the very organised interfaith adventure I attended today – a youth oriented joint event with Monash Political Science and UNESCO – was exactly the opposite of the nauseating glad-handing we’ve all  read about in the Jewish News.

I keep harking back to how much good all that bonhomie between the leaders of various faiths did during Operation Cast Lead.

If you remember, Jews and Muslims cut ties for a while.

I suppose it’s just easier for leaders to be genial over their kosher nibblies and non-alcoholic drinks when Israelis and Palestinians are not actually at war.

Today’s public lecture was presented by two young women – both American. One was a hijabi Muslim, the other an evangelical Christian.

Things started a little shakily: There wer prayerful words. I looked at my fellow regular interfaith adventure companion and I believe we exchanged the psychic question, “is there a way we can get out of here without attracting too much attention?”

Fortunately, there wasn’t.

Because beyond the initial ostentatious displays of faith, the women were quite brilliant. Not only were they both gifted speakers, but they also provided valuable theoretical and practical models for community building: interfaith that goes far beyond pretty words and addresses various social problems.

My fellow adventurer and I were particularly taken with the way so many of these ideas could be applied to INTRAfaith activities. It’s not as though our community is completely devoid of fractures.

It wasn’t all bagels and (Jewish) champagne, though.  There were definitely some unanswered questions that I’ll ask either tomorrow or on Wednesday (it’s a three day conference).

These questions are:

1) If you come from an evangelical religion in which one of the central tenets of your faith is that you must save souls from eternal damnation through conversion, how exactly do you reconcile that imperative with the imperative to respect the conflicting beliefs of others?

2) What if there are elements in another religion that you find unconscionable? What if a tenet of someone else’s religion is not just different from your own, but is profoundly offensive?

The idea that individual beliefs are elevated to a place beyond critique is, to my mind, a recipe for a kind of group-think that forsakes rigorous analysis or debate for dishonest consensus.

While I would always support the individual’s right to choose (as long as no one else is harmed), I also demand the right to question or disagree with any such choice. This particular interfaith model didn’t seem to allow for that, but I will investigate more tomorrow.

3) The speakers kept referring to the extraordinary life and work of the Reverend Martin Luther King as an exemplar of interfaith work.

The only problem is, that while Dr King made common cause with a Rabbi and encouraged numerous Jews to join the Civil Rights movement, the movement itself was a secular phenomenon and many of the campaigners were far less interested in religion than in the very temporal matters of the law, discrimination, and equality.

But more than that, what exactly happened to Black/Jewish relations after Dr King’s death?

How many of us remember Crown Heights?

My question is, how strong is any interfaith or intercommunal movement if it is entirely dependent on the charisma and leadership of one man?


That said, listening to the two women speak was an extraordinary opportunity.

While I do have considerable misgivings about elements of what I heard today, they constitute only a small portion of what was otherwise a profoundly exciting event. I’m looking forward to tomorrow and will report further on what I learn.

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8 Responses to “Interfaith: Time To Keep an Open Mind… Perhaps”

  1. Ilana Payes says:

    “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers – Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
    Carl Sagan

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  2. Since my previous comment about the futility of Interfaith discussions I would like to bring to the table an interesting observation.

    I have been active in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) “community” since 1995. Over the past decade and a half I have met a lot of people in this community from the entire spectrum of faiths and cultures.

    It may be my experience only, but I have yet to experience religious intolerance or disharmony between members of different faiths or cultures (eg between Australian gay Jews and Australian gay Muslims).

    An example of this was in the 2006 Melbourne Pride March, as reported in the Jewish News, where Egyptian and Lebanese Muslims and Christians marched together with Australian and Israeli Jews. Interestingly enough that article juxtaposed the harmony of the interfaith gay pride march with one on Palestinian suicide bombers. But I digress.

    I have met plenty of GLBT Muslims, Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and of no faith who coexist in harmony and with respect for each other’s difference. This appears to be a global phenomenon, not just limited to an Australian context. GLBT Palestinians and Israeli Jews existing in harmony is actually a reality.

    One could say that people who might ordinarily be in conflict with each other come together when they are united by oppression. Perhaps. I am not so cynical and think that GLBT people have learnt a lesson of intolerance and have a more evolved approach to community and coexisting. I would be glad to have this notion disproven.

    In any case, I think this is something that needs to be discussed and looked into, if we really want to aspire to the goal of peace in the 21st century.


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    • Alex Fein says:

      Michael, while I agree with much of the content of your comment, there is something – perhaps in the tone – that makes me bridle.

      As you are aware, I am not only a supporter of equal rights and protections for GLBT, and have had close relations with people in the GLBT community. When I hear of any sort of homophobic discrimination, I feel sick.


      If the writing in your comment is making *me* blanch, then you might want to consider how you frame your arguments to the wider community.

      For example, “Perhaps. I am not so cynical and think that GLBT people have learnt a lesson of intolerance and have a more evolved approach to community and coexisting” – this implies that heterosexuals like me and others are less evolved in our approach. That may or may not be true, but it’s not a useful tihng to put out there.

      Honestly, I think the normalisation of GLBT within our community is far more important than “identity” blocs standing monolithically against each other, trying to change minds almost by decree.

      In my fantasy world, let’s say you have a youth organisation. It can be Jewish, or it can be interfaith. Why not have GLBT and heterosexual leaders, indistinguishable from one another? Why not have them mentor kids that are either GLBT or heterosexual without distinguishing between the groups?

      If we are close friends together, and if we are all normal to each other, then when discrimination does rear its ugly head, we ALL have a stake in standing together to fight it. It’s no longer a “gay” issue, but one of human rights.

      But in order to do this, the adversarial approach has GOT to be dropped.

  3. Sisu says:

    Alex, as a gay man I take exception to some your comments – I see nothing that Michael wrote is a reflection on the heterosexual communities.

    The point is that there are major differences between many GLBT (and I and Q) people and heterosexuals / non-GLBTIQ people. Especially for those of religious persuasion, the lack of support does mean alienation and, I think, a different worldview. Just as there are differences between all identities (and the history that has lead to those identities).

    Whilst I don’t think you intend the “normalisation” of GLBT identity to mean the removal of difference, there are many GL people (not so many BTI or Qs) who do see the ultimate goal is some assimilationist normality. But there are more GLBTIQ people who see difference as a point of departure and is to be celebrated because it is different.

    It is not adversarial to say, “This is the experience of my community.” And I am heartened by your comment that discrimination against me hurts you equally (and vice versa). But let’s not seek the “normalisation” of our identities (or the identities of other faiths or worldviews), but embrace what is different in celebration of that difference. Our identities define us, and in many ways become us – they are not to be ignored lightly.

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  4. Alex,

    Apologies if I wasn’t clear enough in my message.

    My comment on your blog was to give an example of a highly diverse community working in harmony. It may have problems in other areas, but from the perspective of faith and culture, it seems to function fairly smoothly.

    Compare this community to areas of society where there are problems of intolerance between different faiths etc. I am not saying compare GLBT to heterosexual, but rather to compare the GLBT community with other communities or parts of society. Look at the GLBT community as an example of how it can work successfully and try to understand the reasons why.


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  5. Alex Fein says:

    Michael and Sisu,

    Indeed, it seems I missed the point to some degree, focusing on a small element of Michael’s larger comment.

    My personal belief is that diversity and cohesion are both highly desirable elements in a group, community, or society. The only problem is, they often militate against each other, and in the struggle for primacy, any initial good intentions can be lost.

    So here’s some tachles background: I was quasi-adopted by a gay couple in Tel Aviv when I was 18.

    When I asked to rent a room from them, they refused my money, and instead fed me, bossed me around, and loved me – really mysterious, considering how obnoxious I was.

    I’d like to think that even without that experience, I would still hate homophobia on both intellectual and moral grounds, but there is one hell of an emotional punch for me in there as well, because of D. and T. – also known as Abba and Imma… also known as, “Nu, leave me alone! I ate already!” had such an impact.

    Thing is… this couple would sometimes say seriously homophobic stuff. It shocked me.

    But they explained that they felt misrepresented by the sort of hyper-public hedonism of Gay Tel Aviv – that it made life much more difficult for them with their non-Ashkenazi family members, for example.

    They were not fans of diversity, let’s say.

    And really, I reckon the GLBT communities everywhere are racked by this division. Mardi Gras culture versus “assimilation.”

    I personally don’t have an opinion either way, but it needs to be acknowledged as an existing debate.

    And by acknowledging this, we also acknowledge that every community has its peckalach :)