I recently had a conversation with a grandmother who was terrified that her ten-year old grandson was going to fall from Judaism and embrace Christianity. The boy’s parents were recently divorced, and he had asked his mother if he could go to church with her. The grandmother was consumed with grief, and called me for counsel. Much to her dismay, my response was not what she was expecting to hear.
After listening to the details of the situation, it was clear to me that the boy was starving for a sense of faith and hope in the aftermath of a painful divorce. It was also clear that while the parents had once agreed to raise him Jewish, ten years had passed without ever giving him any kind of Jewish education whatsoever. To complicate matters, the father (who was the Jewish partner in this interfaith marriage) had rejected his faith long ago, and the mother (who was Catholic) knew nothing about Judaism. In short, the boy was seeking spiritual healing from the faith of his mother.
For this concerned grandmother, this scenario represented the end of her grandson’s Jewish life. I, however, saw this situation as the beginning.
Finding God and seeking hope through faith is a quest as ancient as the human species. Every religious endeavor begins with this quest as we seek a sense of meaning in response to the challenges life throws our way, and since no faith has all the answers, all faiths provide insights.
As Jews, we have a very long history of gaining insights about God through our interactions with other faiths. This tradition dates back to Moses, whose interactions with his father-in-law Jethro (a Midianite priest), radically expands his ideas about God and religious responsibility.
Such has been our history as a people. Jews have always learned and usurped ideas from our non-Jewish neighbors. Without Aristotle, we would not have the philosophy of Maimonides. Without the cultural exchanges which took place in medieval Spain with Arab poets, Jewish literature would look very different today. Without our theological exchanges with those who follow the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and many other non-Jewish theologians, our abilities to articulate matters of the spirit would be greatly diminished. In every age, Jews have not only contributed to the realm of spiritual matters, but we have consistently sought knowledge and understanding from outside of our heritage as well.
This was the purpose of the trip I took to Abu Dhabi in May and its follow up program in Morocco in October. As imams, ministers and rabbis gathered in each of these predominantly Muslim countries, we did so in the spirit of expanding our capacity to serve the world in positive ways. Rather than reject each other’s faith and practices, we seek to build bridges of cooperation, respect and shared learning.
The truth is that, in religious life, sometimes finding God and the value of faith in our lives takes a circuitous route. For this little boy, I strongly believe that the faith of his mother was the beginning of his spiritual journey. It was certainly not the end, and how it would unfold from there was yet to be determined.